Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Yitro (Exodus 18-20) Who do You Hang Out With?

The first sentence in this week’s Parsha begins, “And Jethro, the priest of Midyan, THE FATHER-IN-LAW OF MOSES, heard…” The Torah explains that Yitro heard of the miraculous events surrounding the Exodus and the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Yitro, therefore, traveled to join the Jews and converted to Judaism.Several weeks ago, when we began reading the book of Exodus, the Torah related that Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Jew to death. Moses then fled to Midian, where Yitro welcomed him into his home. Moses then married Yitro’s youngest daughter, Tziporah. Having conveyed these events, the Torah already clarified that Yitro was Moses’s father-in-law. Why does the Torah need to mention once again this same bit of information; we already know that Jethro was the father-in-law of Moses.
The Midrash answers, “Originally Moses was honored through his father-in-law as the Torah writes, ‘And Moses returned to JETHRO HIS FATHER-IN-LAW’ (Exodus 4:18). Now his father-in-law was honored through him (Moses). When people would say to him, ‘Tell us about you,’ he would say, ‘I am the father-in-law of Moses.’”
It is understandable that Jethro later felt esteemed by his kinship to Moses but it is harder to understand why Moses felt honored by being Jethro’s son-in-law during the period he resided in Midian. Although Moses had not yet become the liberator and teacher of the Jews, his monotheistic value system and sterling qualities were already firmly established. Why, then, did Moses feel honored by being the son-in-law of Jethro the idolater?
People have a sense of themselves – of who and what they are. Deep down, a person’s sense of “Who and what I am” is not solely based on the realities of “Who and what I am.” A wholesome self-perception also requires a feeling of being anchored to another individual through self-identification. For this reason, even Moses, the greatest of Jews, could not completely self-identify based merely on the awareness that he was indeed Moses, the greatest of Jews. He also had to see himself as being a part of someone or something else as well. In this case, it was, “I am also Moses, the son-in-law of Yitro.”
The text discusses the self-actualization that accrues from being attached to another prominent individual, Moses to Yitro and later Yitro to Moses. Another way of buttressing of self can be attained through attachment to a group and sports is a great example. The attachment sports fans have to their team is built upon ego identification – i.e., “I am a Cowboys fan” means that what I AM is a Cowboys fan. For this reason, how a sports team performs may leave its avid followers feeling internally ecstatic or sorrowful. Similarly, many people develop an almost worshipful attitude toward their favorite actors and entertainers. Their egos live vicariously through the fame and wealth of these stars they so admire. Charismatic but unethical religious leaders and false Messiahs have long been able to inspire followers to contribute great amounts of money and effort to their cause. Presumably, people give so much to these bogus religious figures because the egos of the followers are enmeshed with and aggrandized by the leaders and their organizations.
An extremely wholesome and beneficial instance of this psychic process occurs when people identify with morally upright people who stand for and lead others to these values. They stand for living for others and building communities in which kindness and a lifetime of learning are the highest goals. Much personal satisfaction can result from incorporating the values and truths embodied by those individuals into one’s own concept of self.
Jethro’s example is indicative of who he was. He joined the “Moses Club” and began to identify himself, not as Jethro, a prominent Midianite, but as the father-in-law of Moses, the leader of the Jews as well as their primary teacher.   (Sources: Mechilta, Parshas Yisro Rabbi Berish Ganz in The Jewish Heritage Initiative)
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