D’var Torah – Torah Portion Jethro: Celebrating a Father-in-Law

Each year around this time I look forward to the Torah portion Yitro beginning with Exodus Chapter 18: “Moses’ father-in-law Jethro….”

Rabbi Alan Berg
Rabbi Alan Berg

It is noteworthy that this encounter is followed by the Torah’s most majestic and enduring event: Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. I have often wondered if Moses and Jethro’s relationship was the essential reality for the revelation on Sinai.

Moses’ reunion with his wife’s father provides me with an opportunity to celebrate my own treasured father-in-law Philip Rothman, and to think about the central role that our fathers-in-law and mothers-in-law can play in our lives.

Phil is warm, wise, caring, curious, a scholar, He and Esther raised a family of good people like them. In his 70s he out-jogged me by quite a few laps. Now in his 80s he enlivens my life and quietly gives it direction because of what he means to me. Ever since I met Phil, I have read this verse in a special, poignant way: “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am on my way to you.”

The Torah has an attitude of acclamation of this particular father-in-law. His name itself, in the Hebrew Ye-tro is the most energized form, called Piel, of the Hebrew root letters. His name translates best as ‘he who gives well and much of himself’, or ‘he did more than ordinary men, was liberal in good deeds,’ or ‘one who adds to….’

In many of our relationships with our father-and mother-in-law, much can go unsaid, if only because of the so-much and so-many of our lives. That also may explain, within the so-much and so-many of the Torah, why commentators on this Jewish story so rarely mention the emotional significance of this connection between Moses and Jethro. When recounted at all the focus is on a threshold moment in the Torah, Jethro’s advice to Moses that he share authority: “Moses took his father-in-law’s advice and did all that he said.”

I suggest use of the word ‘threshold’ not because of the singular meritorious quality of Jethro’s advice, but because Jethro is a Midianite; he is not a Hebrew! Noteworthy, that absent here is the ethnic focus and narcissism that seems to scar so much of the lives of those in the Torah.

As we see, this advice really is a small thing next to the true source of this portion’s power, the deep affection and emotional relationship between a son-in-law and a father-in-law. “Moses went out to greet his father-in-law, bowing down low and kissing him.” The Hebrew word translated here as ‘kissing’ is from the Hebrew root NASHAQ. In Marcus Jastrow’s definitive dictionary of sacred Hebrew, Jastrow selects the most powerful reference, from Psalms, to illustrate the nature of this kiss between Moses and Jethro, “…when the summer kisses the autumn at the change of seasons.” Also, from a modern literary criticism perspective, these verses describing the time between these are radiant with soft quiet rolling words and letters, reshes, shins, alephs and yods.

So we see that the Torah, with regard to content and style portrays a relationship with a father-in-law as a wonderful event for each party, and for the Torah itself.  I know that so many of us have found this in our own lives; with our mother-in law and our father-in-law.

Like cousins, our in-laws can be a relationship we celebrate privately, or even take for granted. By placing the giving of the Ten Commandments as the very next episode, the Torah is teaching us a lesson: the path to Sinai is a great father-in-law. If that goes too far in its reach, then let me suggest a modification. Yes, the road to Sinai may be through the Sea, it may be violent and fearful, but if you are blessed to have a Phil Rothman in your life, you have a bridge over troubled water.

Rabbi Alan Berg is Rabbi at Beit Haverim/South Metro Jewish Congregation in Lake Oswego, Oregon.)

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