NumbersWhen Our Paths Diverge

Parshat Beha’alotchah (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

There comes a time in the life of every family when individuals have to chart their own paths. Whether that means marrying to start a family far away, or leaving to pursue an education, or simply individuating while staying geographically near, we learn time and again that part of growing up includes a process of growing apart.

While we haven’t heard from Moshe’s wise father-in-law, Yitro (called Chovav in this chapter), in many weeks, and his advice to Moshe to delegate and create support structures during the forty-year journey in the wilderness may have faded, it is in this week’s parshah that we finally hear of his taking leave of Moshe and the Israelites.

Moshe, like many ‘young’ leaders (he is a sprightly 81 years old), assumes that he will have the benefit of Yitro’s advice and support throughout the wilderness journey. In a conversational form that has not lost its resonance today, Moshe attempts to cajole Yitro to stay by claiming it will be mainly to his benefit, and not to Moshe’s:
Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the LORD has promised to be generous to Israel. (Numbers 10:29)
But as soon as his Yitro demurs, we hear of the real reason why Moshe initiated the conversation:
Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide. (10:31)
Moshe is terrified of leading the Israelites on his own, even after Yitro has helped him initiate sound, sustainable practices that will serve the Israelites for centuries to come. And while Bamidbar, as a book, is a master class in tips on how to lead (and how not to), there is more to Moshe’s response than simply a vacuum in leadership.

In stating his intention to leave the Israelites, Yitro makes it clear why he is leaving:
I will not go (elech),” he replied to him, “but will return (elech) to my native land. (10:30)
Moshe extends the promise of the Promised Land, with the natural bounty and the metaphysical groundedness that it will afford the Israelites. But his offer, which sounds so enticing to a recently enslaved people wandering the wilderness, does not appeal to Yitro, a priest of a different tribe (Midyan) who has a home, family, and the security for which the Israelites are still searching. Seen from the perspective of later Judaism, it is incomprehensible that Moshe, the first and best leader of the nascent Jewish people, could be anything but the center of the story. But in the context of a small tribe of Israelites just beginning to conceive of itself as a people, it is no surprise that Yitro sees his work with Moshe as complete, and yearns to return to his own people and land.

Understanding the sagely figure of Yitro as a central character in his own right might also help us understand the marked contrast between this exchange and the parallel one in the book of Ruth. During the recently completed holiday of Shavuot, we read of Naomi’s attempted leave-taking of her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. Naomi has just lost her sons, and Ruth and Orpah their husbands. Naomi, understandably, wants to return to her home to grieve and not burden Ruth and Orpah with her brokenness. She implores them:
Turn back, my daughters! Why should you go with me? Have I any more sons in my body who might be husbands for you?
Turn back, my daughters, for I am too old to be married. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I were married tonight and I also bore sons, should you wait for them to grow up? Should you on their account debar yourselves from marriage?
Oh no, my daughters! My lot is far more bitter than yours, for the hand of the LORD has struck out against me. (Ruth 1:11-13)
And yet — Ruth famously refuses the offer to start her life anew, declaring:
Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go (telchi), I will go (elech); wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the LORD do to me if anything but death parts me from you. (1:16-17)

What is the difference between the situations of Ruth and Yitro? Do they not both have families, land and traditions of their own to return to? Ruth’s refusal to leave Naomi is even more striking when contrasted with our parshah, because while Moshe promises all of the sustenance of Cana’an, Naomi promises nothing but grief if Ruth continues to cleave (1:14) to her.

While it is tempting to explain the difference by pointing out the gender dynamics of the time, where a male was economically and socially free to move from place to place while a widow was entirely more dependent on her closest male relatives (like Boaz), I think that that robs both Ruth and Yitro of their agency.

Instead, these two portraits can teach us about the necessity of finding one’s own path. Yitro, we know, had a large family to return to (Shmot 2:16 records him having seven daughters), while Ruth’s extended family is not mentioned at all. Yitro seems to be modeling at least two key traits for Moshe by leaving: that leadership requires discipline and a sober acknowledgement of one’s responsibilities, and that Moshe is ready to take on the mantle of sole leader of the Israelites, even if he does not yet feel ready. Ruth, by contrast, has found her family in Naomi, and she is ready to follow her anywhere life may take them. The fact that her story ends well, and that she is understood to be an ancestor of King David, serves to highlight the virtue of selflessness that she embodies in this pivotal moment. Both Ruth and Yitro exemplify the ways in which one’s family — chosen or biological — can serve as a key part of our evolving identities.

Rabbi Benjamin Barer, Rab ’18 will be starting a new position this fall as Jewish Text Teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife, Deborah.

Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.

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