What Moses’ relationship with his father-in-law reveals about his own loneliness


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Rabbi Rachel Kay Bearman

“Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God. He sent word to Moses, ‘I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.’ 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 Adonai had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how Adonai had delivered them.” 

(Exodus 18:5-8)

This week’s Torah portion opens with Moses’ reunion with his father-in-law, Jethro (Yitro in Hebrew), his wife, Zipporah, and his sons Gershom and Eliezer. Every time I read the verses that describe their reunion, I am struck by the loneliness that seems to pervade Moses’ life. 

He has traveled from Egypt in the midst of a vast multitude; he walks beside his biological brother and sister (and presumably his biological parents); and, yet, it is his father-in-law with whom he rushes to speak, from whom he seeks counsel and to whom he unburdens his heart. 

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It makes sense that Moses feels closest to Jethro since he didn’t grow up with his biological family, and the Torah tells us that Moses lived with Jethro’s family for years. (As an aside, it would be wonderful if Moses felt that same closeness with Zipporah, his wife of many years, but for unknown, albeit speculated reasons, their relationship is fractured.) Once we see how delighted and supported Moses felt when Jethro was present, we’re able to imagine the pain and isolation that Moses must have been feeling in Jethro’s absence.

After they embrace one another, Moses tells Jethro everything that has happened since they parted, and Jethro replies with validation and joy, praising Moses for his actions and praising the Israelites’ God for the kindness God showed to the people as God rescued them from Egypt. 

The next day, Jethro accompanied Moses while he heard the complaints and problems of the people. The Torah tells us that Jethro grew increasingly concerned as he watched Moses exhaust himself trying to meet all of the people’s needs. It’s immediately clear to Jethro that Moses has been pushing himself too hard, and Jethro reacts as a father and mentor would. He tells Moses: 

“The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Exodus 18:17-18)

Moses never wanted to be a leader, but he was willing to accept the role in order to save his people. When Jethro reappears in the story, Moses’ relief is so clear that we can easily imagine a thought bubble appearing over his head that says, “Thank God. Jethro’s here, and he knows what to do.” 

When Jethro shows his concern for Moses, we, as readers, are able to see how Moses has been suffering without the guidance of a mentor and without the support of someone who cares for him. Jethro strengthens Moses by reminding him of his humanity. Jethro reassures him that he’s allowed to have limitations, and he teaches him that pretending to be superhuman will only hurt him and the people he is trying to lead.  

It’s striking that this week’s Torah portion, which includes the Ten Commandments, is not named Sinai or Moshe or Mitzvot. Instead, the rabbis decided to begin the portion with the father-in-law of Moses, and so the portion is named after Yitro (Jethro), a man whose presence healed Moses’ heart and strengthened him enough that he was able to receive our people’s most sacred revelation. 

The name of the portion is a fitting legacy for the beautiful, empowering relationship between Moses and Jethro.