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You know the story of the pious rabbi whose town was flooded. As he sat on the roof of his house praying for help, a navy motorboat came to save him. “God will save me,” he said and shooed them away. The water rose higher. A helicopter came to rescue him. “God will save me,” he said and shooed them away. Then he drowned. He reaches heaven and says, “God, why didn’t you hear my prayers and save me?” “I did,” God responded. “I sent a motorboat and a helicopter but you refused them!”
This story, in its converse, comes to mind when we read that Moshe asks his father-in-law Hovav, aka Yitro, to remain with the nation as they journey to Canaan. When Yitro refuses, Moshe says, “Please don’t leave us! … You’ll be like our eyes.”
But wait a minute. Was Moshe asking for human assistance when he had the guidance provided by God’s pillar of cloud in the day and pillar of fire at night? How can that be?
This whole story of Hovav-Yitro is strange. We met Yitro at Sinai, Shmot, when he brought Tzippora, Mrs. Moshe, and their two children to visit daddy. He gave Moshe good advice about setting up a judicial system and then left for home.
When did he come back? Or is today’s story actually part of the Shmot story? And if he did return to Moshe, why is he leaving again? Actually, even a cursory glimpse of the events can explain both why he is leaving and why Moshe wants him to stay: the people are getting out of control. They are complaining and upsetting the whole camp.
Other explanations run the gamut. We will examine three of them.
1. Matya Kam connects Moshe’s words “and you will be like eyes for us” to the qualities Yitro manifested in his first visit. During that visit we read that “Moshe’s father-in-law saw” – he saw that Moshe was not delegating authority. He saw the problems this was causing for both Moshe and the people. He told Moshe, “Choose from the people” the correct ones to be judges. Except that instead of “choose” the Hebrew word “predict” is used. In other words, look deeply into the people. Sight and insight were Yitro’s forte. Here too, Moshe wanted Yitro’s “insight” to help him understand the people.
2. Rivka Na’aman, a clinical psychologist, puts both Moshe and Yitro on the couch, metaphorically speaking. Moshe’s first appeal to Yitro is much more materialistic than “being our eyes” in the desert. “If you go with us,” he says, “when God is beneficent to us, we will be beneficent to you.”
Na’aman draws a parallel to daily life. When things are good for us, we can be good to others. It is the rare individual who can ignore personal distress and treat others properly, giving them even more than he has. This quality, by the way, is attributed to mothers, who will ignore their own suffering to alleviate their children’s suffering, as much as possible.
Thus, reading between the lines, we may be able to discern the difficulties afflicting Moshe as he leads the people through the desert. He wants to repay his father-in-law for his assistance but he can’t while he is dealing with so many other problems. Perhaps he feels that in the new land, where things will be better for him and for the people, payback will finally be possible.
3. A third explanation, proposed by Major-General Gershon Hacohen, is the most intriguing.
When Moshe invites Hovav-Yitro to travel with them to the place God has given them, saying ‘we will do good by you,’ Yitro refuses. “I won’t go. I’ll return to my country and my homeland,” he says. Rashi explains that Yitro had thought that non-Jews had a place in Canaan. Now he saw that they didn’t, and he went his own way.
How did he see this? A commentary called Likutei Anshe Shem, by Reb Shlomo Halevi Buber (mid-late 19th century) intuits that Yitro felt insulted. By connecting the invitation to Yitro to join the people as they entered the land with the promise that he would share equally with all the other Israelites in the distribution of property, Moshe is inadvertently stressing Yitro’s otherness. He is emphasizing that his affiliation to the Israelite nation does not come naturally.
In their confrontation as envisioned by Buber, Yitro says to Moshe, “Why should I eat at the table of others?…I don’t need any favors from you, to get a piece of land, free. Better I return to my country and my homeland where I have plenty of riches and property.”
Moshe immediately changes tactics. No no no, he says. “We NEED YOU. You know us and how to get us through the desert. You can serve as our eyes.” Moshe discards the material approach and stresses the more important experiential-spiritual aspect of joining the Israelites. “You saw into us in the past. You can show us the way now.” On another note, perhaps Moshe’s plea also reflects a fear of what “the others” will say. Ha, other nations will say, “If Israel was such a divine project, Yitro would not have left them.”
In other words, ties based only on commercial and material interests are not nearly as durable and effective as ties based on deeper spiritual values.
This applies to our ties today, both among various groups within our country, and between us and Jews abroad. And even with the goyim, wherever they are.