In a parsha that chronicles the most widely observed revelation of God’s presence, and the giving of the Aseret HaDibrot (colloquially known as “The Ten Commandments”), there are also a number of smaller but no less striking teachings as well. One of those ‘quieter’ aspects of the parsha is a lesson about how to be a good father-in-law.
Yitro is offered by the Torah as a role model for how a father-in-law should relate to his son-in-law. Yitro’s actions stand in marked contrast to those of the Torah’s other major example of a father-in-law, Lavan.
In place of the resentment (or, at best, grudging acceptance) that Lavan shows towards his son-in-law, Yaakov (see Bereshit 29:19 and 31:43), Yitro shows respect for his son-in-law’s independence. This is something seen most clearly when he ultimately grants Moshe the right to return to his family in Egypt (Shemot 4:18): Lavan’s resistance to Yaakov’s request to leave stands in marked contrast to the blessing Yitro gives Moshe when he makes the same request.
Yitro is best remembered for the advice he gave Moshe to appoint judges below him, as recorded in Parshat Yitro. What is most significant, to this discussion, is the manner in which Yitro respects his son-in-law’s value system even as he (Yitro) shares his wisdom with him. By conditioning his suggestion on Divine confirmation (Shemot 18:23), he makes sure that it will be acceptable to his son-in-law’s religious sensibilities.
The early part of Sefer Shemot is, in many respects, a transition from a story of one family – Yaakov’s – to the story of the nation of Israel. It is well worth noting that, amidst this transition, we are given a glimpse of a prime example of a healthy son-in-law/father-in-law relationship, which may be characterized as an association that is part family and part stranger. In offering such a paradigm we may glean valuable insights into our other hybrid relations, with our brothers and sisters (fellow Jews) and even those who may not share our faith but do share in our common humanity.
This Dvar Torah was adapted by Harry Glazer from the chapter “Yitro: The First Other,” in Rabbi Francis Nataf’s book Redeeming Relevance In the Book of Exodus: Explorations in Text and Meaning (Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2010).
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