In Praise of Elders: The Quiet Value of Yitro


This week's portion no doubt ranks high in the Torah Top Ten. It's got all the bells and whistles: Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments, lightening, thunder, even smoke. It's got the making of a people, for heaven's sake -- you can't get more seminal than that. Much has been written, by people much smarter than I, about the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai. It's a rich topic, but I'm not going there today.

I want to talk about Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law, for whom this portion is named. You may remember that during Moshe's initial years away from Egypt, he started a family. To re-cap: Shortly after the Burning Bush incident, Moshe sent his wife, Zipporah, and two sons back to Midian to live with Yitro; Moshe was getting ready to confront Pharaoh and it seemed like the safest thing to do until things got back to normal.

At the start of this week's portion, Yitro gets word of the Hebrews' successful escape from slavery, their triumph over the Egyptians, and their travels through the wilderness. So what does he do? He packs up Zipporah and the kids, and brings Moshe's mishpoche (family) across the desert to reunite them. Not wanting to surprise anyone, he sends word ahead to Moshe that he's coming.

Wait a minute -- what? Yitro knows where the Hebrews are in the desert? He calls ahead? I thought these people were wandering! I thought they were incommunicado, dependent only on God and Nature for their survival -- I thought their isolation and independence was the whole point! Yitro's well-communicated foray out to meet them rather comically points up the contrived nature of the whole wandering-in-the-desert enterprise -- it's a little like your dad showing up with bagels in the middle of your walkabout.

But what's Yitro is bringing is more important than bagels. Moshe has a whole adult life and family to whom he is responsible; he can only put that on hold for so long. Now that he's completed his task of freeing the slaves, he has to care again for his wife and children. It is Yitro's role to gently remind him of that. Of course, Yitro would be within his rights to demand that Moshe return to Midian and care for his family there, where it's safe. But he doesn't; instead, Yitro brings his daughter and grandsons out to reunite with Moshe in the wilderness. Now, this could well have been Zipporah's idea, and her father's acquiescence could have been grudging. But nothing in Yitro's words suggests it. As soon as he arrives, Yitro listens to Moshe's story. Then he validates the God that Moshe is following on this fakachte journey: "Now I know that YHVH is greater than all gods," he says. Then he offers to take Moshe and his friends out to dinner. But since there are no restaurants in the desert, they eat in: Yitro hosts a burnt offering in honor of YHVH (Ex: 18:11, 12).

How cool is Yitro? For all of us -- children, young adults, and mature adults with responsibilities of our own, having elders who visit us, listen to us, and validate our experiences is precious and important. My dad is that kind of elder; countless times in my life, he and my mom z"l have traveled out to my wilderness to witness my daily reality and give me encouragement (and take me out to dinner).

My dad has also, countless times, come with me to work, as does Yitro in this story. My next favorite part of this portion is the day after Yitro arrives, when Yitro watches Moshe at work, mediating the people's disputes from morning until evening. At the end of the day, Yitro takes Moshe aside. "Why do you act alone?" he asks; "You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well," (Ex: 18: 14, 18). He then counsels Moshe on how to be a leader without burning out: "You shall seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God ... let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves," (Ex: 18: 21, 22).

Distribution of labor, delegation of power; the beginning of a coordinated system of local and high courts; and if not elected, at least somewhat representative, government. Not bad for a one-day, pro bono consult. I love that Yitro plops into the middle of the chaotic narrative of this bewildered people, offers a simple structure to help them organize themselves into a society, and then goes back home. That's his cameo. That he does this just before the most seminal, awe-inspiring revelation of the people's lives on Mount Sinai is, I think, key. Think about it: Receiving the Ten Commandments is a grand and mystical experience; afterwards, without that distributed leadership structure, the Israelites would probably have crashed the server (or the servant), bombarding Moshe to help them process what had just happened. But thanks to Yitro, they have a structure in place, with localized leaders, to help the community integrate the moral/spiritual guidelines they've received on the mountain.

The last cool thing about Yitro is that he knows when to leave. "Then Moshe bade his father-in-law farewell, and he [Yitro] went on his way to his own land," (Ex: 18: 27). Yitro knows that whatever is in store for the Israelites belongs to his children's generation, not his. His departure is his last show of support; he is letting Moshe and Zipporah know that they can do it on their own -- they don't need him as they face what comes next.

So for all the bells and whistles in this portion, the quiet revelation of Yitro is what touches my heart: A wise, supportive parent who shows up, reunites, listens, offers a tip, and then says: "I'm leaving now. You know what to do. You'll be fine."

Blessed are our elders. Blessed are those who - no matter how grown-up we are - show up just when we need them -- to listen to us, feed us, offer good counsel, and let us know we are doing just fine. Blessed are those who endow us with the internal structure we will need to sustain our most challenging and revelatory moments. May they be blessed to know how valuable they are.