He loaded the donkeys with their possessions and they set forth on the long voyage to find her husband in the desert. Zipporah led one animal, on its back her sons Gershom (meaning I have been a stranger there) and Eliezar (whose name meant my God is help) - both apprehensive about meeting the father they didn’t remember, the man of legend. Jethro, Zipporah’s father, Moses’ father-in-law led the other animal, burdened with many bundles. For days they wandered in the hot sun, barely speaking, each engaged in internal struggle as they envisioned the future. Jethro tempered his great resentment towards Moses, with a level of pride. As a Midianite priest he could understand the need to follow God’s command, but he could not imagine doing so without his family by his side. It was time for his daughter to be a wife; time for his grandsons to have a father. Jethro, himself, was too old to begin raising sons again.
Zipporah, walking beside her father, rope in her hand, was filled with apprehension. Would Moses be disappointed at her return? Could he have a family and be a leader? Did he want them in his life? She had brought the children into Jewish tradition through circumcision; how would their father feel.
On the back of the braying animal, sat two terrified boys, frightened of meeting their great father- the man who had battled Pharaoh, and led the Israelites through the parted sea. Exodus 18 verse 5, “ Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the Mountain of God.” Moses went out to greet his family with joy and spent the evening with Jethro, recounting the struggles towards freedom. But the next day, Moses went back to work sitting as judge over the people from the rising of the sun until far into the night. The dinner that Zipporah had prepared went cold, the two boys off to sleep without a kiss from their father.
When Jethro saw how much time Moses spent counseling the people, he said, “Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning to evening?” Moses replied, “When people have a dispute it comes before me and I decide between man and his neighbor. I make known the teachings of God.” And Moses’ father-in-law said to him
Lo Tov haDvar asher ata oseh!!!!
This thing you are doing is not right!!!! You will surely wear yourself out and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you, you cannot do it alone. Enjoin upon the people the laws and teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go....
What a message and how apt for us today- Moses spent so much time trying to meet the needs of others at work, that what was most important to him, was lost. It took Jethro, father-in-law, and non-Jew to teach our greatest leader how to lead the Jewish people and model a balanced lifestyle.
The message is simple but powerful. We, like Moses, are human beings and therefore cannot do it all by ourselves. To even think that we can is pure arrogance because it abrogates the need for other people. Although painful to admit, the office still runs when we are not there, things get fixed, letters get out and patients are seen. As reporter Bill Wilson said, “it seems absolutely necessary for most of us to get over the idea that man is God.” To set limits is to be fundamentally human, essentially limited and not God. We have limits. Moses had limits. Perhaps he was unwilling to delegate responsibility because he was afraid that someone else would not approach the task with his vision. Or perhaps he feared that in delegating responsibility, he would lose ultimate power. Whatever the reason, the need to be needed as the sole owner of God’s word fed something deep inside of Moses- an innate hole that could not be filled by self. And humility was turned into arrogance.
The Hasidic masters teach about humility through a tale. One day a Rabbi, in a frenzy of religious passion, rushed in before the ark, fell to his knees and began beating his breast crying loudly, “I am nobody. I am nobody”. The cantor, impressed by the Rabbi’s display of humility also fell upon his knees chanting, “I am nobody. I am nobody.” The Shamus, who took care of the building, couldn’t restrain himself from joining in and bend beside the two on the floor echoing their chant. At which point, the Rabbi nudging the cantor, with his elbow pointed at the Shamus uttered “Look who thinks that he is nobody.” Humility for show, is not humility at all- it is only conceit. At this point in his life, Moses needed to be taught to step back and relinquish some of his power- not only for the success of the Israelites coming together as a people, but also for the survival of his own family.
Our relationships are similar to those of our ancestors. People work long hours, travel extensively and juggle careers with families. There are more factors trying to pull families apart than keep them together. Part of this is due to the fact that our society treasures the disposable. But relationships are not automatic- and there is not an easier model around the corner. Intimacy is not immediate and everlasting. We do not know our children without spending time with them. We do not grow old with our spouse without struggling through many obstacles and communicating even when communication seems to be the most difficult challenge on earth. Nothing can be built for longevity without first laying a balanced foundation. Jethro taught Moses this, we learn through trial and error.
V’yomer Hotein Moshe aleiv, lo tov ha-Dvar asher ata…. V’yishma Moshe. Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “This thing you are doing is not good… and Moses listened.” We too need to listen to the voice of Jethro and find balance through humility. We need to spend more time with those we love because the more we give to our children, to our loved ones, to our communities the more we give to ourselves. Jethro’s message echoed in the words of Hillel: Eim Ain Ani li mi li, she’asani l’atzmi mah ani, v’im ain achshav eimatai- if I am not for myself who will be for me. If I am only for myself what am I. If not now, when.