Yitro: I Love My In-Laws

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“Moses went to greet his father-in-law, bowing down low and kissing him” (Shemot 18:7). Unfortunately, relations between children- and theri in-laws are not always so rosy and are often marred by jealousy, power struggles and outright animosity. One need look no further than the eternal king of Israel, Dovid Hamelech, and his troubles with his own father-in-law, Shaul. In fact, the Talmud tells us that even in a case of an agunah, where Jewish law accepts the testimony of relatives, a mother-in-law's testimony regarding her daughter-in-law is not accepted in a court of law.

Moshe Rabbeinu, serving as a role model for us, not only displayed respect and affection for his father-in-law, he valued his advice and his presence amongst the Jewish people. “Moses said to his father-in-law, the Midianite, ‘We are now on our way to the place that G-d promised to give us. Come with us and we will share the benefit of all the good things that G-d has promised Israel” (Bamidbar 10:29). 

This warm relationship began soon after Moshe married Tziporah. “Moshe tended the sheep of his father Jethro, sheik of Midian” (3:1). It was Yitro who advised Moshe regarding the proper running of a judiciary. Amazingly, “Moshe took his father-in-law’s advice and did all that he said” (18:24). Moshe, who had successfully led millions of people out of Egypt, the man who would speak face-to-face with G-d, did not feel it was beneath his dignity to take advice from a heathen and to publicly acknowledge this fact.

Why was Moshe so close to his father-in-law, a heathen priest, that the Parsha of the Divine Revelation bears his name? It is almost as if Moshe, in his greatest moment of glory, takes a back seat so that Yitro can be in the limelight. Even before Moshe leaves Midian to return to Egypt to start his mission, he requests permission from Yitro. “Moshe left and returned to his father-in-law, Yitro ‘I would like to leave and return to my people in Egypt’… ‘Go in peace’, said Jethro” (4:18).  It is almost as if the redemption was dependent on Yitro’s good wishes. This is all the more startling if we accept the Midrashic teaching that Yitro was actually one of Pharaoh’s advisors, and was really bothered by the destruction of Egypt. 

It appears to this writer that Moshe‘s indebtedness to Yitro can be explained by Moshe’s tremendous feelings of gratitude toward Yitro. Moshe, after killing an Egyptian who was attacking a Jew, Moshe is forced to flee Egypt. Where was he to go? Moshe fled to Midian, stopping at the well—presumably to evaluate his limited options. Seeing an injustice perpetrated against a group of young women, he rises to their defence and, risking further problems, draws water for them. Thinking only of their good fortune and not wanting to risk revenge, the women leave him there and go home. Yitro, their father, would not accept such ingratitude. “'Where is he now?' he asked his daughter. 'Why did you abandon the stranger? Call him, and let him have something to eat.'” (3:20). Yitro, at least in Moshe’s mind, had saved his life. Furthermore, Yitro gave Moshe his daughter as a wife. A man who would welcome a stranger into his home and care for him is one who merits association with revelation. It is the reward for “greater is the welcoming of guests than receiving the Divine presence.”

This sense of gratitude was evident in all that Moshe did. To cite just one example, Moshe did not participate in administrating the first three of the plagues. The first plague struck at the sea, the same sea that saved Moshe from certain death. The next two emanated from the ground, the same ground that Moshe used to bury the Egyptian. Despite the cruelty of the Egyptians and the justice behind their suffering, Moshe would not allow himself to be the instrument to bring that pain about. It was more important that he not harm the things that saved him.

Matan Torah and Yitro are practically synonymous. To accept the Torah means to respect and value the advice of others and, if cogent, to accept it regardless of its source. Furthermore, it means that we must be permanently grateful to the many who have helped us. The Torah is a gift to the Jewish people. We must be ever grateful that we have the privilege to observe the Torah as we fulfil G-d’s plan in the creation of the world.