Then Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’s father-in-law, We are traveling to the place about which the Lord said, I will give it to you. Come with us and we will be good to you, for the Lord has spoken of good fortune for Israel. He said to him, I won’t go, for I will go to my land and my birthplace. He said, Please don’t leave us, for because you are familiar with our encampments in the desert and you will be our eyes (Bamidbar 10:29-31).
The most high-profile convert of all time, Yisro had decided to go home to Midyan. Although the Jewish people were just a few days from entering the Land of Israel (this occurred before the sin of the spies), Yisro felt a need to return home. But why? After all he had left behind to join our people as we made this historic journey, why turn back now? Furthermore, how are we to understand Moshe’s counter-argument? What did Moshe mean when he said to his father-in-law, “you can’t leave for you are our eyes?”
Rav Yosef Chaim ben Eliyahu (Ben Ish Chai, 1835-1909) provides a magnificent insight. Yisro was a giver. Yisro was the kind of person who wanted to enhance the lives of those around him. Even before he found God, he was the high priest of Midyan and in that position saw to the spiritual and emotional needs of his constituents. Yisro ultimately leaves that life on the quest for true spirituality and becomes a member of the Jewish people. And it is here that he finds himself surrounded by exceptional people. His son-in-law Moshe is the prophet of prophets, Aharon the Kohen Gadol, Elazar, Yehoshua and the Seventy Elders were present each and every day to inspire the masses. Yisro felt blessed to live within a cocoon of holiness but felt despondent that he had nothing to contribute. The nation doesn’t need him; they have the most wonderful spiritual role models and teachers. And so Yisro approaches Moshe. “I will go to my land and my birthplace. I can have an impact back in Midyan. You see my precious son-in-law, Midyan is a spiritual desert, I will return and open the hearts and souls of the residents with all of the beautiful Torah and life-lessons I have learned. I want to be giver and not a taker. I have much to contribute but my abilities are not needed within the Jewish nation. Let me go back in order to inspire and spread the word of God.” Moshe responds, “Please don’t leave us …. for you are our eyes. My beloved father-in-law you inspire us each and every day through your mere presence. We were a slave nation for 210 years and when we heard the message of salvation we listened and acted. We had nothing and so when God offered us the opportunity to become something – we grabbed it. For us, it wasn’t much of a decision. Barbaric treatment and death in Egypt or Torah, our own land and freedom to decide our destiny. But you, Yisro, you had everything. You had a beautiful family, fame, wealth and an identity. Yet, you gave it all up for the sake of becoming something greater and holier. You sacrificed everything to find God, join the Jewish people and find deeper meaning and fulfillment in life. You inspire and teach us each and every day. You are the embodiment of the important lesson in life – if you truly desire greatness you must be ready to sacrifice. You can’t leave “for you are our eyes,” you teach us how to properly view life, how to be properly see ourselves.”
Yisro wanted to return for he desperately pined to be a giver. Moshe begged him to stay for Yisro’s mere presence was an ongoing inspiration. It is from this simple exchange that we emerge with two powerful lessons:
Lesson #1 – Be a giver not a taker. The greatest gift one can receive in life is not something you get – but rather, the ability to give. All too often we approach life situations thinking “what’s in this for me? What can I get out of my involvement? How will this benefit me?” The Jew asks one simple question – how can I give? How can I contribute? What can I do to help build the individuals and world around me? What’s in it for me? The opportunity to roll up my sleeves and give. What do I get out of it? The profound and life-affirming satisfaction that I am making a difference. If we nurture a constant desire to give, we will constantly seek our new avenues of growth and fulfilment.
Lesson #2 – There is no growth without sacrifice. In greater society, sacrifice is a bad word. We are told that we should be able to have what we want, when we want, how we want. But this is not true. Sacrifice is part of the very fabric of the human condition. Whenever you choose one thing, you are sacrificing another. We must learn the art of sacrifice. We each have things which hold us back. For some it may be a negative relationship, for others it may be a particular pleasure or behavior. If we truly want to grow we must identify the things which are holding us back and find the courage to “sacrifice” them. Yisro left Midyan because he felt that his existence there was an anchor tethering him to a life of mediocrity. We all have our anchors which weigh us down and keep us from moving forward – we must learn to sacrifice these items in order to forge forward.
Moshe was correct; Yisro is one of our most important teachers and role-models. Yisro’s legacy is not what he said. Yisro is not remembered for a particular sermon or lecture. Yisro didn’t leave us any meaningful statements, mantras or aphorisms. Yisro teaches us how to live through modeling a life-style of growth and achievement. This simple man has and continues to illuminate the eyes of our nation.