Thursday, June 9, 2022

Parashat Beha‘alotecha: What bothered Jethro?


Like the Book of Numbers as a whole, Parashat Beha‘alotecha begins with detailed instructions for organizing the Israelite camp and assigning necessary tasks, so that the people would be able to progress efficiently towards the Land of Israel. Everything looks promising but it isn’t long before everything starts disintegrate and rebellions begin. What changed? It’s not clear, but in the gap between order and disorder, there is a brief incident that could potentially cast light on the issue:

Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the Eternal  has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the Eternal  has promised to be generous to Israel.”

“I will not go,” he replied to him, “but will return to my native land.”

He said, “Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide (literally,  “eyes”).

So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the Eternal grants us.” (Numbers 10:29-32)

On the assumption that “Hobab son of Reuel” is indeed Jethro/Yitro – who was familiar with the story of the exodus from Egypt and the wonders that God did for the people (see Exodus 18:1) – Why doesn’t he agree to continue with Moses and the people of Israel? Why not stay with his daughter, grandchildren and the people that God has chosen? Many commentators attribute his hesitancy to personal considerations. For example, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (Italy, 16th century) wrote, “So that in his old age he would not have to adjust, to the different climate and food in a country he had not grown up in.” Although this sounds logical, it does not explain why his departure marks the beginning of deterioration in the Israelite’s situation.

Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein[*] (Chicago, 21st century) sees the deeper problem, specifically with the style and content of Moses’ request. As he understands it, Jethro does indeed have great respect for the mission of the people of Israel but the promise made by Moses  We will be generous with you; for the Eternal  has promised to be generous” doesn't interest him. Jethro has a homeland of his own. Moses tries again and emphasizes that the Israelites need his assistance, “As you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide.” Jethro doesn't even respond to this suggestion. What was so insulting? Rav Aryeh explains:

I imagine Yitro hearing this and thinking, “Really? That’s what you think I’ve been doing for you? I’m the map guy? Oh, ok, see ya.” Yitro knows well that his real contribution was his mission-focus and the spiritual orientation of listening and social intelligence. He paid meticulous attention to Israel’s structural composition, able, with the aid of a little critical distance, to see the diverse members of the community as activists and not passive, broken slaves…  Moshe had a tendency to rage, burnout, and alienation from the people; it was Yitro who showed him how to create a sustainable, efficient, and accessible judicial system.

According to this reading, Moses misunderstood the true contribution the Jethro had made and it could be that Jethro was not only insulted but began to doubt his friendship with Moses and whether they could continue working together. He wasn't interested in starting a new journey under those conditions. It is also possible that Moses did indeed understand Jethro’s true value but didn't take sufficient care to express himself clearly. Rav Aryeh concludes:

Whether Moshe misunderstands and underappreciates Yitro, or he just doesn’t take care in communicating with him remains ambiguous, and I can’t help but wonder whether that ambiguity is the authorial intention. So often, the origins of our relationship breakdowns elude us and we don’t even know why we have bad feelings or how to mend them. On this reading, the Torah is dramatizing that dynamic for us by scripting two old friends talking past each other, parting ways without closure, and, as a result of the alienation of our most insightful mentor and adviser, the Israelite community and Moshe its leader crumbling into social disarray.

What really happened? We have no way of knowing. However the Torah’s method of leaving gaps in the text gives us an opening to look more deeply into our lives and communities.

May we have the will to truly appreciate each other’s best traits and communicate with precision.



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