Mourning Moses, honoring family


“Search the depths of your own heart and you will find the Torah; Search the depths of the Torah and you will find your own heart!” — Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

As one who toils daily in the “retail end” of the “Lord’s Vineyard”, I have come to feel a special resonance with the 18th Chapter of the Book of Exodus (a section of this coming week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Yitro) which records an encounter between Moses, the somewhat beleaguered, overwhelmed leader of the nascent Israelite Nation and his wise, experienced father-in-law, the venerated philo-Semitic Sheik of Midian, Jethro (Yitro).

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I am deeply moved by so many elements of our holy Torah’s depiction of this reunion. How wonderful it is to see a seasoned “manager of human resources” who is so willing to share — so freely — of his vast knowledge. How refreshing to come across a powerful and accomplished “Chief Spiritual Officer” of a nation who is both humble and open enough to hear constructive criticism — and from an outsider, no less. How inspiring to hear of two prominent men — from dramatically divergent backgrounds — who can find common ground, dialogue meaningfully and emerge enhanced from the experience. In truth, how could one not be drawn to the beauty and profundity of this tale?

And yet, when I recently had occasion to revisit this section of our sacred text (at a gathering of Rabbis Without Borders — a program sponsored by CLAL), I was struck and immensely pained by one particular aspect of the encounter that had never before occurred to me. A series of verses that, I believe, speak directly and with great power and insight to our own lives — and most especially to the lives of those of us who quest to find sacred consequence in our livelihoods and occupations.

The Torah informs us that as Jethro prepares for his summit with Moses, he takes special pains to muster Tzipporah, Gershom and Eliezer — Moses’ wife and sons — whom he (Moses) had earlier “sent away” ostensibly as a way to protect them from the Pharaoh of Egypt who might have sought to punish Moses by exacting vengeance and retribution upon the immediate members of his family. As he arrives at the Israelite encampment, Jethro announces and emphasizes that he (Jethro) has made his way to Moses “with your (Moses’) wife and two sons.”

What follows is nothing short of tragic — truly heartbreaking! With great deference, respect and affection, Moses welcomes his father-in-law and invests himself -fully in being present to Jethro, inquiring about his journey and his welfare. But what of Tzipporah? And what of Gershom and Eliezer? What does Scripture share with us about the rendezvous between a husband and his wife, between a father and his offspring? Not a word!

No tears; no embracing; no blessings. The silence is deafening — and heartrending. Moses is totally unmoved, emotionless, detached. He does not even acknowledge the presence of his own family. It is as if they are invisible — nonentities.

Clearly, this section of our Torah cries out to us — darsheni — study and understand me; integrate my wisdom into your life!

Moses, our greatest of teachers, instructs us in this tale about the kinds of people we must avoid becoming. He may very well have been amongst the first — but surely not the last — great leader to sacrifice the needs of his own family on the altar of perceived communal demands. Moses’ myopia, his inability to appreciate the precious gift of his family — a gift which Jethro lays out plainly before him — without question diminishes the fullness and the quality of life of the greater Savior and Liberator of Israel.

And thus, at the conclusion of the Book of Deuteronomy, we are told that the entire Nation of Israel mourned the passing of Moses for a full 30 days. As poignant as this image is, I can’t help but wonder if Moses himself understood the tragic irony of this verse describing his demise and the period of sorrow that followed. For as we all know, children inter and then mourn their parents for a protracted time — not 30 days, but rather an entire year.

When Moses was “gathered to his ancestors”, he was so estranged from his own kin that there remained no one to serve as his “Kaddishel” — no one to accompany him on the final leg of his journey; no one to lay him to rest; and no one who saw it as his/her sacred obligation and honor to recall — in perpetuity — the memory of not Moses the “figure head,” but rather Moses the husband, the father, the man.

As we turn to this Torah Portion, may we each be blessed to learn/relearn of the sanctity, meaning and consequence to found in the blessing of our families…And may we always strive to be fully present to them — even as we quest to serve our congregations, communities and the human family. Amen!

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is the Spiritual Leader of Congregation B’nai Amoona, a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow at CLAL and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.