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 Yitro (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 encampment of the Jews, and as the Midrash explains, he also came to convert 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 Midyan, 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 Yitro 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 YITRO 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.’ “
The reason why this information is repeated is not to let us know who Moses’ father in law was, but to teach us about a change of perspective. While in Midyan, Moses felt honored by the fact he was Yitro’s son in law. But later, when Moses became the leader of the Jews, it was Yitro who felt honored by the relationship between them; now he was Moses’ father in law.
It is understandable that Yitro later felt esteemed by his kinship to Moses. Moses wielded great temporal power as the leader and de-facto King of the Jews. Moreover, Moses was a supremely wise and holy individual. He performed the great miracles of the Exodus, and on three different occasions, he ascended Mount Sinai and remained in G-d’s Presence for 40 consecutive days in a superhuman way.
What seems harder to fathom is why Moses felt honored by being Yitro’s son in law during the period he resided in Midyan. The prohibition against idolatry is one of the seven Noachide laws; all gentiles including Yitro were obligated to uphold it. Different Midrashic sources state that Yitro was not merely a worshiper of the local Minyanite idol, he was one of its priests. Although Moses had not yet become the ruler-liberator-teacher of the Jews, his monotheistic value system and sterling qualities were already firmly established. The Torah even relates the special events revolving around his birth. Why, then, did Moses feel honored by being the son in law of Yitro the idolater?
People have a sense of themselves – who and what they are. Some call it self-identity, or even self-esteem, but the primary criteria for determining this self-assessment are the measure of one’s accomplishments and character attributes.
The Midrash is revealing a profound psychological insight. 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. It does, however, seem logical and likely that the same buttressing of self could be attained as well through attachment to a group. The sense of being a part of the group will then play the critical role of augmenting how people see themselves.
We see this psychodynamic realized regularly. The attachment sports fans have to their favorite teams 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 to aspire to. Much personal growth can result from incorporating the values and truths embodied by those individuals into one’s own concept of self.
In sum, all people have a powerful psychic need to belong to a “club.” But which club they join is extremely critical, for its values exert an unseen and inescapable influence over the “membership.”
Yitro’s example is indicative of who he was. He joined the “Moses Club” and began to identify himself, not as Yitro, a prominent Minyanite notable, but as the father-in-law of Moses, the leader of the Jews as well as their primary teacher. Yitro thereby actualized his ego by feeling a oneness with what Moses embodied – goodness, Torah, and holiness.
(Sources: Mechilta, Parshas Yisro; Rabbi Berish Ganz in The Jewish Heritage Initiative, 2/5/15)

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Good Shabbos


Rabbi Oppenheim
Charlotte Torah Center