Before the Sinai Marriage

Many Torah commentators have seen this encounter at Sinai as the wedding ceremony between God and the Jewish people.

Moses (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Moses (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
AS THE ISRAELITES, A WEARY BAND OF RUNAWAY slaves, stumbled their way into the wilderness in single file, not yet with any center, they met a family member of their leader.
Who is he? The Torah makes very sure we know: In the first 12 lines of the portion, Yitro [“remnant, left-over”] is referred to seven times as hotein Moshe, Moses’ father-in-law. Earlier, when Moses married his daughter Tzipporah, his name was Reuel; now he is the “left-over” piece of Moses’ early life before he led the people out of slavery.
Why would we need to know that Moses’ relationship with his father-in-law and a visit with his family were foremost in his awareness just before the people came to Sinai, just before they received the Ten Utterances or Ten Commandments?
Many Torah commentators have seen this encounter at Sinai as the wedding ceremony between God and the Jewish people. As in every Jewish wedding, there had to be a written contract, the ketuba, explaining the obligations of both partners. For this ceremony, say the commentators, the Torah itself is the ketuba, making clear what the parties owe each other.
Just as some marriages begin with a fast day of mini-Yom Kippur, so at Sinai there was a three-day pause for focusing intention and attention, before the mountain itself began to shake and dance as the community dances at a wedding.
In ordinary marriages, this pause before the wedding may give time for the partnering couple to address those hurts and misdeeds that need a resolution – perhaps especially those that arose in the families of their birth and rearing. Those families were probably the contexts for the most intense and intimate experience each partner had of love and anger. So one major aspect of preparing for married life, for partnership, may be reflecting on and forgiving whatever missteps and misdeeds have arisen in the families where each partner grew up.
How could Moses do this? He may have had a plethora of mothers.
But he has had very sketchy fathering. Where could he turn to explore and heal this aspect of his childhood and youth? To his birth-father Amram? We know hardly anything about him besides the bare fact of biological ancestry. To Pharaoh, the father of the princess who drew Moses from the Nile and so became an extra mother for him? But Pharaoh had commanded that Moses be killed. Not a father to learn from.
The one man who has truly fathered Moses is his father-in-law – Yitro, who through 40 years of Moses’ marriage to Tzipporah had watched, guided and counseled not only Moses but their partnering.
So it is important that Yitro arrived just as the people were ready for their “wedding.” And it is important that the two men not only greeted each other warmly, but immediately went into a tent to talk in private. Moses told Yitro all that had happened since they had last seen each other – the exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Reed Sea, the need for food and water, “all the hardships that have befallen the [people], and how YHWH has delivered them.”
And, in turn, Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, did what every child (adult or young) wants of his/her parent: he listened carefully and took pleasure in what had happened. This is a first step in the healing of the relationship with parents in preparation for marriage: We speak from our hearts, unguarded, to our parents and find them listening openly, without interruption or advice, and responsive to what we have to say.
The next day, Moses continued his work adjudicating disputes between Israelites. There were so many people who needed to be heard and judged that people lined up from morning to night, waiting for Moses.
Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, watched the process and then spoke honestly to Moses, not only as one leader to another but also as a father to a son. Yitro warned Moses that he would burn out, that it was too much work for one person to do. He counseled Moses to appoint a cadre of god-fearing, trustworthy judges who could share the burden by settling all the minor disputes.
And Moses, the mature son, did what every parent wants of a child: He listened carefully and accepted the counsel of his father-in-law, acting on it without rejecting Yitro’s advice as interfering or shaming or irrelevant.
This is a second step in the healing of the relationship between parents and children in preparation for marriage: We listen openly to what parents have to say and find wisdom for ourselves in their caring comments. When parents and children are able to speak and listen openly to one another and find meaningful connection in the exchange, the children are better prepared for the challenges of being a loving partner and becoming a loving parent.
And so these conversations became the worthy backdrop for the covenantal “marriage” that began at Sinai. What seems like a “leftover’” piece of Moses’ past became a crucial guide into his future.
Rabbis Berman and Waskow are co-authors of ‘Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia’ (forthcoming in February from Jewish Lights Publishing.