Parashat Yitro: The coming of Jethro

Moses shows true emotion upon seeing Jethro.

ABARBANEL SUGGESTS that Moses was reluctant to take any personal time offa (photo credit: UNSPLASH)
ABARBANEL SUGGESTS that Moses was reluctant to take any personal time offa
(photo credit: UNSPLASH)
In this week’s Torah portion, Jethro, for whom the portion is named, reunites Moses with his wife Zippora and sons Gershom and Eliezer.
“Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out from Egypt. So Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zippora, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home, and her two sons…. brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God. …Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him. Each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent…. Moses then recounted to his father-in-law everything that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them. And Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel...” (Exodus 18:1-9).
Why does Jethro come now? The text tells us only that he heard all that God had done. Much has happened since Moses and Jethro parted from one another in the beginning of the book of Exodus. There are two midrashic interpretations of interest. One is that Jethro heard about the Exodus from Egypt, including the ten plagues as well as the splitting of the Reed Sea and the fight with Amalek. Since Sinai is not mentioned in the chapter, it is understood that this story is chronologically in the right order. Midrashic tradition also has Jethro converting to Judaism based on his declaration “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods.” This reading suggests he stays with Moses even though a departure is described at the end of the chapter, which the midrash will have to explain. 
The other reading claims that Jethro came after the revelation, so this narrative, which is placed before the giving of the Torah, is chronologically out of order. The advantage to this reading is that it explains why Jethro leaves at the end of the chapter. It is unthinkable that he should have been present at Sinai and then departed. It will also heighten the tragedy of Moses’ personal sacrifice, as we will see later in the article. Whatever the reason, Jethro, who hears all that God has done for Moses and for Israel, takes initiative and brings Moses’ family to join the nation while they are camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. 
Moses shows true emotion upon seeing Jethro (who is called the “father-in-law of Moses” 13 times in this narrative). He goes out to meet him, bows before him and kisses him. He takes him into his tent and tells him all that happened to the people of Israel. This priest of Midian then brings sacrifices to Moses’s God and sits down to eat a meal with Aaron and the elders. 
When Moses awakens in the morning and begins the arduous ongoing task of adjudicating the disputes of the people from morning until night, Jethro rebukes him. He advises him to delegate some of the judicial responsibility to other capable people in order to retain the strength he needs to act as the sole direct mediator between God and the nation. Moses immediately listens and implements this new plan of action. 
The chapter ends with a farewell as Jethro returns to his land, reminding us of the departure of Abraham to Canaan with the words: “he went his way to his own land,” possibly to bring the word of God back to his people or, to resume his own leadership responsibilities as priest in Midian in a manner similar to the leadership responsibility of Moses.
Turning back to the beginning of the chapter, where has the family of Moses been until now? When we last saw Zippora, Moses had saddled a donkey and was heading down to Egypt with her in tow. At that point, an angel of God sought to kill either Moses or the child with them and Zippora courageously circumcised the child. The midrash M’chilta Amalek 3 explains that the separation began when Moses and Aaron reunited and Aaron pleaded with Moses to send Zippora back to avoid taking more people out of slavery. Some commentaries suggest that Moses divorced her based on the textual usage of “after she had been sent home” which mirrors the word used to describe divorce in Deuteronomy, thinking to sever his connection with his old life and his new, all-consuming role as the leader of the Exodus.
 The reunion between Moses and his family is a puzzling one. The Torah does not impart any detail regarding the reconnection of husband and wife or father and sons despite the detail of the warmth displayed when Moses reunited with Jethro. The reunion is indeed a cold one. He does not address his wife and children upon seeing them and the next day, he awakens and immediately goes back to work, seemingly without pause or consideration or showing any attempt to integrate them into their new surroundings. While the midrash tries to smooth it over by noting that the Torah is protecting Zippora’s modesty, such an attempt feels contrived. 
The medieval commentator Don Isaac Abarbanel criticizes Moses for his apathy. He notes that after the Exodus, Moses should have actively sought out his wife and sons, assimilating them into the nascent Israelite nation as it began its journey towards Sinai and the Promised Land. Midian is not far from Sinai, reinforcing Moses’s negligence. Abarbanel suggests that Moses was reluctant to take any personal time off, preferring to attend to the prevalent demands of the people and the constant presence of God’s word. 
In a similar vein, another medieval commentator, Hizkuni, writes that this story took place after the revelation at Mt. Sinai and for that reason, we never hear of Zippora, Gershom and Eliezer again. If Moses was unable to ensure that his wife and children were standing at Sinai, it is not surprising that his family essentially disappears.
The Torah, in this sparsely detailed narrative, awakens us to the enormous personal price Moses and his family paid when God appeared to him at the burning bush and appointed him as leader. Moses, the greatest prophet of all time and the man God spoke to face to face, was not able to balance family and leadership, serving perhaps as a cautionary and realistic tale of what such a responsibility entails.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.