July 21, 2024
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An In-Law Inadvertently Interfering

I have magnificent in-laws. They are loving, generous and kind. In no manner, whatsoever, have they ever inadvertently precipitated a national disaster with repercussions reverberating through millennia. Would that Moshe have been so blessed.

Yitro was unquestionably a righteous person but not without having made a tragic error. Notice that a parsha is named after him. It is one of only five parshiot to bear a person’s name. These parshiot are: Noach, Yitro, Korach, Balak and Pinchas. In each case the individual for whom the parsha is named has a defect.

The Rabbis comment on the description of Noach being: “a righteous man outstanding in his generation” (Berishit 6:9). They note that although Noach was righteous in his generation, had he lived in Abraham’s time he would have been regarded as naught. They criticize him for not praying for his generation as Abraham prayed for Sodom and for failing to exhort his generation to repent. Moreover, when he left the ark one of his first acts was to plant a vineyard— not a good start. Even the mitzvot given to him are referred to not as his but as the “Seven Mitzvot of the sons of Noach.”

Korach led a revolt against Moshe and Hashem.

Balak could have hired Bilam to pray for Balak’s nation not to be harmed by the advancing B’nai Israel, but instead Balak hired Bilam to curse B’nai Israel.

Although Pinchas acted out of passion for Hashem, he did so without consulting Moshe or the elders. Despite his execution of the sinners being considered proper, the rabbis did not fully approve of his approach. Indeed, the Talmud Yerushalmi in Masechet Sanhedrin states that if Hashem had not declared that He was awarding Pinchas the covenant of peace, Pinchas would have been excommunicated. Then there is Yitro.

We first encountered Yitro as an idolatrous priest, but one who, according to the Midrash, was searching for the true God. He married his daughter to Moshe and later joined B’nai Israel in the wilderness. This was to his credit. In this parsha, Behaalotecha, we find that which was to his discredit.

In Parshat Behaalotecha, Moshe believes that we were on the cusp of entering the Land of Israel. Yitro had been traveling with the nation for some time and now Moshe invites him to join the nation in meeting its destiny. Moshe promises Yitro prosperity if he comes along with B’nei Yisrael I (Bamidbar, 10:29). Even after spending time with B’nei Yisrael, seeing and experiencing the wonders of the Mann, the Clouds of Glory and the Mishkan, Yitro, nonetheless, chooses to leave and not accompany the people into the Land of Israel. Moshe persists and implores, but Yitro still demurs and departs. This is to Yitro’s shame and engenders the disasters that follow. Why this is so can be seen in the terms Moshe used to beseech Yitro to join the nation.

In pleading with Yitro to come, Moshe argues: “וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אַל־נָ֖א תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֑נוּ כִּ֣י ׀ עַל־כֵּ֣ן יָדַ֗עְתָּ חֲנֹתֵ֙נוּ֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְהָיִ֥יתָ לָּ֖נוּ לְעֵינָֽיִם” It is an enigmatic phrasing often rendered as: “And he[Moshe] said, I pray you do not leave us, for you have known our encampments in the wilderness and you have been our guide,” or “you have been eyes for us” (B’Midbar 10:31). A more literal translation better explains the problem. Such a translation would be: “And he [Moshe] said, I pray you do not leave us, for you have known our encampments in the wilderness and you were for us for eyes.” Still somewhat awkward in English, the import of the phrase is that others have looked to you as an example: “you were for us [an example] for [the] eyes [of other people].”

Other people saw Yitro’s hitching his star to B’nei Yisrael as proof that B’nei Yisrael was on the path to success and had found the true God for which Yitro had been searching. Moshe is concerned that people seeing Yitro’s departure will reach the opposite conclusion. Here is Yitro, who after having traveled with B’nei Yisrael and experiencing both the nation and Hashem’s actions, chooses to leave. They will conclude that Moshe’s father-in-law must have inside information dissuading him from going forward. On seeing Yitro’s departure, B’nei Yisrael’s resolve weakens, while the people occupying the land of Canaan are buoyed. Yitro’s action is the reverse of the promise of the Haftorah.

The Haftorah looks forward to a day when “many nations shall join Hashem (on that day), and they will be to Me a people; and I will dwell in your midst and you shall know therefore that Hashem of Hosts sent me to you” (Zechariah 2:15). Here Yitro does the reverse, not only does he fail to cause other nations to join Hashem and B’nei Yisrael, but he sows doubt among B’nei Yisrael.

After reading of Yitro leaving, we encounter the inverted “Nuns,” which as Rav Soloveitchik and others suggest, reflects the inversion or subversion of our destiny and the delay in entry and possessing the Land. This is followed by the disastrous incidents of those who complained for the sake of complaining, and the incident of those who demanded meat, which culminates in the Graves of Craving (קִבְר֣וֹת הַֽתַּאֲוָ֑ה). Of course, still more calamities follow: the Sin of the Spies and Korach’s rebellion.

It should be noted that after Yitro leaves, but before the inverted “Nuns”, the parsha informs us that it was the Ark (be it the golden Ark holding the unbroken luchot, or the wooden Ark hold the broken luchot), which traveled before the nation to spy out encampments. Hashem, not Yitro, guided the nation. Yitro was not our eyes, but yet, some of B’nei Yisrael looked with their eyes to Yitro and lost heart, rather than looking to Hashem and taking heart. As we read in the Haftorah for Bechukotai: “Thus, says HaShem, cursed in the person who trusts in Man…blessed is the person who trusts in Hashem and Hashem will be his guarantor.” (Yirmiyahu 17:5-7).

As we pray for the return of the hostages and true peace for our nation, we must remember where we should place our trust and to whom to look.


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a Board member and officer of several orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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