The Father-in-Law of Moses

The Father-in-law of Moses


We had a very small group today. To further explore our kavannah, the building of conscious community, we began with a reading from “Conscious Community”, written by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, a great Hasidic spiritual leader who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. The manuscript was hidden in the buildings of the ghetto, discovered after the war, and published originally in Hebrew, prior to its English translation by Andrea Cohen-Kiener. The Hebrew title, “B’nai Mach’sha’vah Tova” literally translates as Children of Good Thought.

“Goal of our association . . . we seek . . . to be on the level described in Torah: “You are children of God” (Deut 14:1); we want our sensual perceptions to come around to the perspective of the heart. We can actually see the presence of God, which infuses all creation. Each of us can see with our own eyes that we stand in paradise . . . This is the goal of the group.”

Exodus 18:1 “Jethro, the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses . . . “

Parashat Yitro begins with the story of Jethro bringing Moses’ wife Tziporrah and their 2 sons to join Moses in the wilderness. Jethro was high priest of Midian, and had taught Moses much mystery wisdom during the 40 years Moses had spent with him after fleeing Egypt. Now he returns, reuniting Moses with his family. There is a great reunion, Moses going out to meet Jethro, bringing him in to the tent, relating the full story of what had happened in Egypt, the crossing of the sea, the travels to that point, the defeat of Amalek (Chap 17).

To be sure we don’t miss the connection, the Torah tells us 12 times in this chapter that Jethro is Moses’ father-in-law. What is the meaning of this? A reference to the 12 tribes that were experiencing a new sense of their unique character in the wilderness? R Gershon expands the teaching on 12: The Maharal (16th Century rabbi of Prague) writes that 12 is the number indicating completion of form. In this case, Jethro was kind of a renegade, radical high priest in relation to the rest of Midian. He was on his own spiritual journey of unfolding, which included his relationship with his son-in-law, Moses. Hearing of the exodus, Jethro realized this was the final stage of his unfolding, when he comes to final form (12), and realizes “this is it”. It is at this point he leaves Midian, taking Tziporrah and the 2 boys to rejoin Moshe and reunite the family in the Wilderness of Sinai. In addition, and no doubt not a coincidence, the name of Moshe has the numerical value of 12: Mem = 40, Shin = 300, Hey = 5 à 345 = 3 + 4 + 5 = 12.

Exodus 18:9 “And Jethro rejoiced . . . now I know that HaShem is greater than all the gods“

In Hebrew there are multiple words that can be used for joy, or rejoicing, Here, the verb used is y’chad, which comes from the root meaning “one” (as in Echad). Thus, what Jethro is feeling is the joy that comes from recognizing the One-ness of all that has transpired, indeed that Oneness that is HaShem. Thus his comment, that HaShem is greater than all the multiple gods known to the many peoples in that time, none of whom constituted the concept of all things contained within the Oneness. In recognizing this, Jethro makes offerings to HaShem, and he, and Moses, and Aaron, and all the elders of Israel eat bread together, thus acknowledging the Spirit that provides blessings, feasting, eating together, building the nucleus of the leadership of the community. As we read this section, 2 California towhees flew into the avocado tree near us, chirping, and generally making a minor commotion, joining the feast.

Exodus 18:17: “The thing you do is not good . . . it is too much for you “

Jethro observes Moses trying to deliver judgments of disputes for lines and lines of people each day. Jethro sees immediately this is no way to run a community. It does disservice to both Moses and the people. No man, even Moses, can do it all. There must be division of labor, delegation of duties, in order for the community to flourish. Interesting that this appears to be the process currently underway in the Passover Village – a division of duties, recognition of community structure.

Exodus 18:21 “You shall discern from the entire people . . . leaders of thousands . . . leaders of hundreds . . . leaders of tens “

It is important to have leadership that is recognized by and for the people. Jethro tells Moses that he needs to delegate leadership to judge over the people, to make judgements over the various daily disputes among people, and only bring to Moses those questions that require guidance from his special relationship with YHVH. He relates the 4 personal qualities required of those who are to lead Israel:

· Men of accomplishment/valor/courage - chayil

· People in awe of God – yir’ay elohim

· Men of truth – Emet

· People who despise bribery – son’ay batza – i.e. ethical. This concept seemed confusing, but may refer to the need to not lead or judge based on financial considerations – hence, to try to put the principal into one word, ethical

The Zohar comments on these 4 qualities of Israelite leaders, saying that those who lead all have the common characteristic of having a passion for restoration and unification. It also states that each of these 4 qualities represent one of the letters in God’s transcendant name, YHVH, while the “leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” represent God’s imminent name, Adonai,. These instructions from Jethro to Moses on the choice of leadership therefore incorporate the concept of unifying the transcendent with the imminent in the day to day business of leading the community of Israel.

Exodus 19:2: “They arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai . . . and encamped opposite the mountain”

The anticipation begins to build as the people arrive at the destination where the community identity will be forged.

Exodus 19:3: “So shall you say to the House of Jacob and relate to the Children of Israel”

Moses ascends the mountain, where God begins to instruct him what to say to the people to prepare them for the moment of revelation. He refers to them by the 2 terms, indicating that Moses is to speak to them in terms that communicate to both the imminent nature of their being (House of Jacob) and the transcendent nature of their being (Children of Israel). This reinforces the concept of leaders of Israel being all about this restoration, this unification of that which is at once both imminent and transcendent.

Exodus 19:3 “I have carried you on the wings of eagles and brought you to Me”

In the Hebrew medicine wheel, the eagle is the spirit being keeper of the North, Tzafon, the hidden place, the place of mystery. The eagle in Hebrew mythology is also frequently associated with the protecting Feminine, as in the protective mother eagle who shields her nestlings. Thus God wants the people to remember all the help and protection that came to them from that hidden place that enabled them to reach this moment, such as when the angel of Elohim moved between the Children of Israel and the pursuing Egyptians as a pillar of cloud, keeping them separated until they could get to the sea (Exodus 14:19). All the miracles experienced by the Israelites during the course of the exodus - the plagues, the splitting of the sea, the sweetening of the waters, the mannah – all were part of being carried by the eagle, designed to bring the people into this moment of direct relationship with the Divine mystery.

Exodus 19:6: “You shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”

With these words God gives the people its communal purpose: Israel is to be a kingdom of spiritual ministers, a sacred nation devoted to the connection and service of the Infinite One. The task is to blend into the Holy One (“you are unto Me”), and then reflect that to the nations in the ways that you live and the ways that you think. A truly awesome task. The important thing here is the idea of identity for the entire community. Thus, not only does each individual person have his own role to play, be it leadership as described earlier in the previous chapter or something else, but the entire community as a whole has a unified role to play in the world. This is like an organ within the body, which is made up of individual cells, each of which has its own individual purpose and function, but which also has a unified purpose which is critical for the survival of the entire body.

What does it mean to be a kingdom of priests? How do we organize ourselves as individuals to serve this purpose? If we are to somehow do that, what is our relationship to others in the world who may have different individual and communal purposes?

Join us at the next study gathering: Saturday, August 6

Location: Encino