“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. Why? After all he had left behind to join our people on this historic journey, why turn back now? Furthermore, how are we to understand Moshe’s counter-argument “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 left that life on a quest for true spirituality and became a member of the Jewish people. And it is here that he found himself surrounded by exceptional people. His son-in-law Moshe was the prophet of prophets, Aharon the Kohen Gadol, Elazar, Yehoshua and the Seventy Elders were present at every moment 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 didn’t need him; they had the most wonderful spiritual role models and teachers. And so Yisro approached 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 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 to inspire and spread the word of God.” Moshe responded, “Please don’t leave us… for you are our eyes. My beloved father-in-law, you inspire us 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, 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 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 he gets, 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 out 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 we choose one thing, we 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. 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. If we truly want to grow, we must learn to sacrifice these items to forge forward.
Lesson #3 – Don’t always look for comfort. We often gravitate to situations with which we feel at home or comfortable. We may tend to socialize and associate only with people who look like us, practice like us and believe like us. Sometimes, your ability to make a dramatic contribution comes when you are willing to leave your comfort zone. You don’t always have to be with people who mirror you in every way; at times putting yourself in the uncomfortable position allows for maximum growth and impact.
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.