By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Moshe vs. Yisro
Two great moral luminaries and teachers confronted each other in this week's
Parsha: Moshe Rabbeinu and his father-in-law, Yisro. Moshe Rabbeinu invited
Yisro to remain with the Jewish people and settle in Eretz Yisroel. Yisro,
according to the Siforno, declined Moshe's invitation and returned to his
homeland Midian. Rashi explains that Yisro's refusal had to do with his
being a convert. As a Ger, Yisro would not have had a legal claim on the
Promised Land. He would not have received a designated ancestral portion
along with the other Tribes. His children and grandchildren would eventually
have married into the main body of the nation, as had his daughter Tziporah,
and been incorporated into the nation's eternal claim on the land; however,
Yisro himself wouldn't have had a portion.
Moshe offered two related arguments in response to Yisro's concerns.
1) Your personal mission is to help the Jewish people attain their national
goal. 2) Your personal destiny can only be fully realized as a part of the
Jewish nation's destiny. The Torah does not record whether or not Yisro
conceded to Moshe's argument. The Ramban says that Yisro and his family
stayed with the Jewish people. The Siforno says that Yisro himself returned
to Midian, but left the rest of his family with Moshe.
Why was a legal claim on the land so important to Yisro? Every
convert to Judaism accepts the inherent limitation of being a Ger. A convert
can not become king. A convert can not marry a Kohain. A convert does not
inherit a portion of the land of Israel. The assumption is that the convert
desires closeness with G-d that can only be attained through Torah and
Mitzvos. The fundamental challenge to a Bais Din in accepting a candidate
for conversion is to ascertain whether or not the applicant has any ulterior
motive in becoming Jewish. If the candidate is unwilling to accept the
imposed limitations of Halacha, he or she is not a worthy candidate. Yisro
is considered to have been a true and proper convert. Why then was he
disturbed by not receiving a portion in the land of Israel?
In what manner did Moshe's argument respond to Yisro's concern?
Moshe should have answered that: a) Yisro could always purchase or rent a
piece of land. It's not as if Yisro would be homeless and unsettled if he
remained with the nation! b) Yisro himself was restricted as a convert, but
his other six daughters (besides Tziporah) could each marry into a family
that had an ancestral claim on the land. How did Moshe's response regarding
Yisro's individual mission and destiny address Yisro's concerns?
At the end of the Parsha, the Torah pays Moshe the greatest accolades
possible for a human to receive. In 12:3 Moshe is described as
"exceedingly humble, more so than any
other person." In 12:7 he is described as, "My servant Moshe, the most
trusted in all G-d's home." The two attributes of humility and
trustworthiness are closely linked to each other. Because Moshe was so
humble, therefore, he was G-d's most trusted servant. As our ultimate
"teacher," we attempt to emulate Moshe's trait of humility and aspire to the
level of being G-d's servant. Humility is knowing what makes each of us
unique and special and developing those talents in the service of G-d.
Servitude is accepting that our true worth is only in relation to how we use
those talents to serve G-d.
The most gifted individual and the least gifted are equal to each other if
they both use their G-d given talents to serve G-d. In fact, someone who is
less gifted but fully committed to serving G-d is far greater than the more
gifted individual who doesn't fully serve G-d. Therefore, Moshe is the most
trusted servant of G-d because he was the most humble of all men. Moshe's
understanding of his own unique talents and his acceptance that his sole
value and justification as an individual was in proportion to the degree of
his service to G-d, earned him his accolades as the most humble and the most
trusted of all men.
Talent comes with a price. Bright and talented people often struggle with
issues of ego and self-worth. On the one hand they are acutely aware of
their abilities. On the other hand, it is difficult for them to accept
direction as how to best utilize those abilities. On the one hand, they
trust their own intelligence in formulating their own opinions and decisions,
and present their plans with a degree of confidence and bravado. On the
other hand, they are just as fearful as anyone else of failure and rejection,
but far less prepared to deal with either.
Yisro was a very talented and intelligent man. So much so, that he was
chosen by G-d to help in Moshe Rabbeinu's development and education. His
life's ambition to understand the truth of good and bad reward and punishment
made it possible for him to recognize the truth of G-d's divinity and to
willfully accept the yoke of Torah and Mitzvos. Yisro was not a first hand
witness to the great miracles of Exodus. Yisro heard about them, studied
them and recognized through them the revealed manifestation of G-d's divine
justice and control. In many ways he was far more advanced in his
understanding of G-d than the rest of the Jews who had witnessed the overt
revelation of G-d in Egypt and the desert.
Yisro's personal dream was to use his monumental intellect and vast life
experiences in teaching the non-Jews of the world to believe in G-d. Who
better than Yisro to explain the shortcomings and fallacies of other beliefs
and religions. Who better than Yisro to encourage the spiritual journeys of
an awakening spiritual conscience, and point that soul in the right direction?
Within the system of Torah education and training, the Rebbi - Talmid
(teacher - student) relationship is of singularly paramount importance. It
is the Rebbi who trains the Talmid in the attributes of humility and
servitude. It is the Rebbi who does battle with the emerging egos of his
bright, yet immature students and forces them to honestly confront their
individual motives and agendas in relation to serving G-d.
Moshe, in regard to humility and service to G-d, was Yisro's teacher, no
different than he was a Rebbi to every other Jew. Yisro, in regard to
intellect and critical thinking, had been Moshe's teacher. Moshe's
invitation to Yisro to stay with the Jewish people and settle in Eretz
Yisroel forced a confrontation between Yisro's own opinion as to his personal
mission and destiny and Moshe's understanding of G-d's plans for Yisro's
mission and destiny. In any other situation, the student would have felt
obliged to concede his personal agenda in favor of Moshe's invitation.
However, Yisro was different. Yisro had lived his entire life making
decisions on the basis of his unique intellect and integrity. He knew with
absolute certainty what his mission in life was. It was to be a Jew; and as
a Jew, teach the non-Jewish world to recognize and believe in G-d.
Historically, there have been two ways for the Jew to teach the non-Jew. 1.
invite the non-Jew to visit in Eretz Yisroel and witness first hand how G-d
intended humans to live and act (as it was in the times of Shlomo Hamelech).
2. Have the Jew to go out to the non-Jewish countries and homes and teach
them to believe in G-d (as it has been throughout our exile).
As soon as Yisro heard that as a convert he would not receive a parcel of
land, Yisro understood that his personal mission was not tied directly to the
land. Therefore, his mission was to go back out to the non-Jewish world and
teach them in their homes. This approach was further substantiated by the
fact that he knew the people of his own birthplace and could understand and
relate to their issues, helping them to recognize and integrate G-d into
their thoughts and actions. It also explains why even according to the
Siforno, only Yisro returned to Midian. The rest of his children were all
destined to be connected to the land and therefore their method for teaching
the world about G-d had to involve, if at all possible, living in Eretz
Moshe's response to Yisro was that he was wrong. First of all, a convert in
relation to the land is no different than a Kohain or Layvie in relation to
the land. Neither of them receives a portion of Eretz Yisroel! "G-d is
their portion!". The reason why the tribe of Layvie was not given a portion
in the land was to show the great intimacy and trust that they enjoyed with
G-d. They served Him in His home and through teaching the rest of the
nation, and He cared for them in a manner that freed them from doing any
other work, except His service. So too the convert. The ger's singular
devotion and commitment in willfully electing to serve G-d rendered him like
the Layvie. Like the Layvie, he is a role model to the rest of the nation of
total commitment and devotion to G-d; and like the tribe of Layvie, he
doesn't have a portion in the land of Israel. "G-d is his portion."
Secondly, the intended way for the Jewish nation, not the individual, to
influence the non-Jewish world was through the medium of Eretz Yisroel. (Just
think how much more prominent we have become on the world scene, in the minds
of the non-Jewish world, ever since the State of Israel was founded). The
fact that we have had to do our work of educating the world in a setting of
exile and persecution is a punishment, not an alternate educational
The job of each and every Jew, including each and every convert regardless of
their unique talents and abilities, is to function as a cohesive whole within
the boundaries of Eretz Yisroel, serving G-d and modeling His values. No one
individual can do it alone. Moshe argued with Yisro that his personal
mission and destiny was intimately linked to the body of the nation and the
land, even if Yisro himself didn't have his own portion! He was to be a
teacher to the teachers (the Jews), just like the tribe of Layvie were
teachers to the rest of the nation. He was to be our "eyes", showing us the
proper way in which to teach the rest of the world, and our teacher in the
meaning of devotion and commitment, regardless of the sacrifice.
According to the Ramban, Moshe convinced Yisro, and he stayed with the
nation. According to the Siforno, Yisro differed with Moshe and, given his
unique intellectual abilities and relationship with Moshe, was unwilling to
subject his own understanding to that of his teachers.
Copyright © 1999 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.