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06/05/2018 02:53:15 PM


Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman

The Art of Letting Go: A Study of Yitro and Moshe
Behaalotcha, 5778

I want to begin today by asking you to think about two questions: The first is - what is the best piece of advice you have ever received, and who gave it to you? The second is - what is the worst piece of advice you ever got, and who gave it to you, or advice you should have listened to but didn’t? Take a quick moment to think about it because I wanted to use our own experiences of this to frame how we look at Moshe’s relationship with his father in law Yitro. 

Moshe first meets Yitro at the beginning of Shemot. Moshe kills the Egyptian, and Pharaoh seeks to kill him, so Moshe runs away from his life in Egypt and arrives in Midian. He saves Yitro’s daughters from harassment at the well, they bring him home, and Yitro welcomes him in and Moshe marries his daughter. For Moshe, Yitro means safety and stability, and a sense of belonging. 

After the burning bush Moshe returns to Egypt and we have all of the wonders of the Exodus. We next meet Yitro in Chapter 18. After the war with Amalek, Yitro comes to see Moshe and hear about all of the wonders that God did for the Israelites in Egypt. Moshe welcomes him warmly, and they go into his tent so that Moshe can tell Yitro the whole story. More importantly for our study, the next morning Yitro gets up and sees that Moshe is sitting from morning til night judging all the cases of the people and he says “Moshe! You can’t do this all on your own!” In modern parlance, you will burn out! It’s too much! Instead you should set up judges to handle the smaller cases, and you just focus on the bigger cases. And Moshe does this, it works, and he sends Yitro off on his way. 

Now this is a lovely and seamless story when you look just at Chapter 18. But if you consider it in the broader context of Moshe and his life thus far, it’s actually pretty surprising. Because every time that God tries to get Moshe to do anything, Moshe says no and comes up with excuses for why he can’t do it. We can imagine that God wants to say “oh just forget it, I’ll do it myself!” Moshe is so difficult to work with. So we have to ask - what goes right with Yitro that doesn’t go right with anyone else? Why does this relationship work?

Human relationships are far more complex than can be addressed in a 15 minute dvar Torah. Ultimately, I believe that Yitro played the role of mentor in Moshe’s life. He advises Moshe on how to do his job, and provides guidance. There is one interesting interaction between Moshe and Yitro in this week’s parsha that sheds light on the inner workings of Moshe and Yitro’s relationship. Since their main interaction in Chapter 18, a lot has happened to Moshe. The people have received the Torah, they’ve built the mishkan, they’ve gotten many civil laws in addition to the laws of the korbanot. They’ve completed the census, and they’ve now organized the camp. They’re finally ready to head to the land of Israel (the incident with the scouts hasn’t happened yet so they do not yet know that it’s going to be a very long journey.) And as they’re getting ready to leave Moshe turns to Chovav (who the text implies is actually his brother in law, but many opinions say that he is also Yitro. I don’t want to get into that here because I don’t think it matters that much - what matters is the role that this person plays in Moshe’s life.) Moshe turns to Chovav and says - hey, why don’t you come with? The land in Israel will be great for you, it will do you well! But Yitro says no, it’s time for me to go home back to my land. Rather than accept this answer, Moshe quickly becomes frantic. Please stay, he begs him! I need you! You know where we camp, and you have been our eyes - enayim. This phrase is strange - what does it mean that Yitro has been their eyes? Dr. Erica Brown points out that Moshe is davka the person who sees! He sees the Egyptian striking the Israelites. He sees the burning bush. Why here does Moshe say that he can’t see?

I believe that the ibn Ezra’s explanation is most fitting - when Moshe says that Yitro is their eyes, he means that Yitro has seen the problems, and he has been able to give Moshe advice on how to fix them. Moshe does not believe that he can do this on his own because Yitro has been there to give him advice on challenges that Moshe has faced. He needs Yitro for support, and is panicked at the thought that Yitro won’t be there with him to help him.

Strangely, in this story we do not know Yitro’s response. The Torah ends this with Moshe’s plea to stay, and does not tell us if Chovav responded a second time. But if you look at Devarim, it becomes clear that Chovav left. Because when Moshe tells over the story of the judges to the people, he says it in a much different way. He turns to them and says “it was too much for me to be judging your cases all day! I couldn’t do it myself. So I set up judges to handle the smaller cases, and I just took the bigger cases.” There is no mention of Yitro. Some scholars of Devarim see this as Moshe’s way of cultivating national pride - we’re gearing up to go into the land, and we want to get ourselves energized and empowered to conquer it and build it. To credit an outsider with a major social advancement would weaken the cohesion of the nation. It would be much better to have that described as an internal development.

However, if you think of Moshe’s taking responsibility for the judges through the lens of Moshe and Yitro’s relationship, it is very powerful. It means that Yitro was an incredible mentor. He was able to step into Moshe’s life when Moshe needed his help, but he didn’t do the work for Moshe - instead he helped Moshe in a way that Moshe was able to take credit for the work. A true mentor or guide helps us become our best selves, and does not do the work for us. They know how to empower us to take ownership over our lives. And, most powerfully, they know when it is time for us to learn from our mistakes. Yitro knew at the beginning that Moshe needed his help in setting up the system of judges. But in this week’s parsha he is able to see that Moshe has become entirely dependent on him when he begs Yitro to stay. And so Yitro says “It’s time for me to go. You have to learn this on your own.” It is quite the learning process, as we will see - the rest of the book of BaMidbar is really messy! But Moshe had to learn that himself. Yitro could no longer do it for him.

There is another dimension of this relationship that we must explore before we close. We don’t usually talk about God having feelings, but if you consider the Torah to be a book about, above all, human nature, you have to ask the question - how do you think God felt seeing Moshe take Yitro’s advice so easily back in Shemot, and the difficulty that Moshe had with parting from Yitro?? The reason I asked the second question at the beginning of the dvar Torah is because we’ve all been in situations where we’ve given someone advice, and they haven’t taken it, and then some amount of time later someone else gives that person the same advice and they say “oh what a good idea!” It’s so frustrating when that happens because you’ve been telling them that all along! It can be so frustrating when someone listens to one person, but not you. Getting Moshe to do anything until now has been like pulling teeth, so we have to imagine that God must have been quite frustrated to see the ease with which Moshe heeded Yitro’s advice.

To help us understand this challenge I turn to Mishna 1:6 of Pirkei Avot. Rebbe Yehoshua ben Perachiah says “Aseh lecha Rav, v’kaneh lecha chaver.” Make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend. In his commentary on Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg offers an answer to the question of why we have “aseh” vs “kaneh.” He says that a teacher exists in your life to serve as a person who has more knowledge than you, and you strive to reach their level of knowledge. It is a fairly simple relationship. However, a relationship with a friend is much more complex. That is an ongoing relationship, and one of give and take, and it needs constant work. Sometimes those relationships are too complicated to just work seamlessly because there are so many layers to it.

This is where we see the true brilliance of Yitro. He knew that he was Moshe’s Rav, but he also knew that he wasn’t Moshe’s chaver. He stepped into Moshe’s life when Moshe needed guidance, but he knew that he had to step out in order to let Moshe develop the ongoing relationships that he needed to develop, with both God and the Israelites. Now that they would be departing for Israel, it was time for the nation to cultivate the chaver aspect internally, and Yitro knew that he was not going to be a part of that.

Each of us have teachers and friends, and we serve as others’ teachers and friends. As Yitro teaches us, these relationships will best be served when we have the wisdom to be able to differentiate between the two, and know when to step into someone’s life and, more importantly, when to step out. Shabbat Shalom.

Wed, January 23 2019 17 Shevat 5779