Parshat Yitro: Even Moses Had In-Laws

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Yitro, contains the Ten Commandments, which tends to always catch our attention.  But the parshah begins with, and is named after, Moses’ father-in-law: Yitro. It is the part of Torah that shows us the father-in-law/son-in-law relationship…and it’s timeless.

There’s an interesting dynamic that exists between fathers and daughters that I’ve watched in my own family.  I quickly learned to brush up on my Freud and then quickly remembered why I don’t like Freud. I watched with confused interest as my husband and my daughters figured things out with each new stage of maturity.  I most definitely remember that each time a new boy showed up at the house to pick up one of our daughters for a date, my husband would greet them at the door with an apple.

I kid you not, my husband would stand in the hallway by the front door with his hand open and an apple lying on his palm.  He would make eye contact with the boy and would say ‘watch this’ as he closed his hands over the apple and split it in half with his hands.  He then opened his hands to produce two perfect halves of the apple, one in each palm. Through it all, he never broke eye contact. I always thought he was showing off his martial arts training and I thought it was cute.  Apparently the boys watching didn’t think it was so cute. It seems they all read it as a message. Years later I found out from my daughters that all their friends were aware of the ‘apple thing’ and it intimidated the boys who’d witnessed it.  I told my husband that it was making them uncomfortable and he smiled a bit and said, ‘is it really?’, but the next date faced the apple.

Ah, yes, fathers and daughters.

When it comes to our in-laws, relationships suddenly become very complex.  They are parents within our marriage, they’re just not our parents. They embody knowledge of our partner that we will never have – they know who they were and who they became.  But we know who they became and who they are becoming, something their parents no longer witness moment to moment. And yet, the Torah commands us to teach our children, no matter whether or not they are young, old, married, single, parents or even grandparents.  We are to evolve into new relationships as they evolve into new stages because we are always obligated to teach them. When they no longer respond to our lessons, we are the ones who must change how we teach them. We are commanded to teach, they are not commanded to learn.

When Yitro joins Moses in the wilderness, he brings Moses’ wife and sons with him.  Moses has not called for them but Yitro decides it is enough time apart. He does not accuse Moses of anything, he simply reunites him with his wife and sons.  It is hard to discuss personal family matters between father-in-law and son-in-law so action is what is needed. They speak all night about the events of Egypt and God, and since Yitro is the High Priest of Midian, this is akin to talking shop.  

The next day, Yitro watches Moses at work and critiques his process.  After all, Yitro knows what it is to lead a people and he’s watching Moses devote his entirety to leading Israel and has nothing left for his family life.  That’s when we remember fathers and daughters.

Yitro tells Moses to delegate, to build a system of appeals that will free Moses from this crushing burden (…and maybe get home…).  Yitro has no vested interest in making Moses the best leader of the Jewish people, but he does have a vested interest in getting Moses to find room in his life for his family.

The only problem is that the system Yitro suggested was one of privilege – only the important people would end up in front of Moses.  For a foreign leader, that has worked, but for the vision of covenant, that would be a betrayal. So Moses sets up a system of challenges rather than privilege.  The cases that are too challenging for a lower court would bump up to eventually come before Moses. He will solve what others could not, regardless of the importance of the participants.  It is this system that we inherit which is why, much later in our history, King Solomon will adjudicate a case with two prostitutes standing before him each claiming motherhood over a single baby.

Once Moses has taken the idea from Yitro and shaped it into what he needs…he sends Yitro home.  Moses will keep his focus on the people and his family life will suffer. Moses will not raise his sons as leaders and he will eventually live apart from his wife.  If Moses were to find a work/life balance, Israel would suffer. If Moses is always monitored by Yitro, his father-in-law, he would insist on sending Moses home at the end of the day.  Choices must be made and Yitro is sent home.

It’s an extremely delicate balance when a relationship between two men exists only because they are bonded to the same woman.  Not enough credit is given to that relationship. Jewishly, we praise the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who brought us defining concepts that include “whither you go, I will go”.  That relationship speaks so loudly and clearly that we all but ignore that men may not express their interactions the same way.

Yitro will protect his daughter and mentor his son-in-law while bringing his grandsons to their father.  The Jewish people are better off because Yitro spoke with familial authority to Moses. He was the only person in Torah to ever speak as a parent to Moses and it gives us a glimpse into how complex that relationship can be.

To the fathers-in-law and sons-in-law all around us, I tip my hat to you for navigating these nuances as often as you do.  I support you in any hallway you choose to stand with every apple you hold in your palm.

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