“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.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him: “When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah (Vayikra 8:1-2)”
Aharon was distressed. He felt left out and marginalized. The Tribal Princes brought beautiful and significant offerings to mark the dedication of the Mizbeyach (altar). Animals, gold, silver; incredible gifts of enormous value were brought to initiate this sacred space. But Aharon was not included. Neither he nor his tribe were part of this grand dedication. But God tells Aharon, “Do not despair; your lot is greater than theirs for I have given you (and your descendants) the mitzvah to kindle the Menorah.” (Rashi 8:2) God is trying to soothe Aharon’s sadness – but why the Menorah? How did this responsibility mend his broken heart? After all, Aharon as High Priest, had many unique responsibilities. He brought the incense (kitores), he sacrificed the communal offerings and he was the only man allowed into the Holy of Holies (on Yom Kippur). What was the unique message and meaning of the Menorah that lifted Aharon’s spirits?
The Midrash (Midrash Rabbah 15:8) provides a beautiful insight:
“There was a great king who often travelled to the small towns of his kingdom to meet his subjects. One of these journeys brought him to the town of his closet childhood friend. The king sent a message to his friend asking if he could join him in his home for a meal. The friend, a common farmer was excited for the great honor of hosting the king and began the frenetic preparations. The much-anticipated day arrived and the simple farmer had set the table with his finest dishes, and flatware. There were main dishes, side dishes and delicious deserts. The farmer looked at the table and was eager to greet the king. The trumpets sounded and the royal coach arrived. As the door of the carriage opened, the trumpets blasted again and a small army of attendants and servants entered the home of the farmer. The servants were dressed in the finest clothing and were carrying golden torches to light the way for their beloved king. Upon seeing all the pomp and wealth the farmer became embarrassed of his meager possessions. The table that a few minutes earlier had looked so beautiful and regal now looked so simple and quaint. The farmer began to feel inadequate and unprepared. ‘How can I serve the king on my simple dishes? How can I feed him my “commoner” food?’ The farmer began to clear the table, quickly putting away the dishes before the king entered the home. Just as he finished the king entered. ‘Didn’t you remember I was to join you for a meal?’ the king asked as he looked at the empty table. ‘Of course, your majesty, but as I saw the great display of wealth I thought it would be more fitting if we would dine on your dishes and have your cooks prepare the meal.’ ‘My dear friend,’ the king remarked, ‘I am here because I want to dine with you, in your home, at your table with your food. I knew that whatever you would prepare would be with love and attention. I felt closer to you even before my arrival because I know who much effort you must be putting in to prepare for our short time together. We will not use my dishes, nor will my cooks prepare my favorite dishes. Tonight, I choose to dine with you, eat your food and reside in your home.’
And so, it was with God. God created the luminaries, He forged the sun, the moon and stars and yet, He asked Aharon (and his descendants) to prepare the light, to kindle the Menorah and to illuminate His home.”
The message is powerful. Rachmana Liba Ba’Ey, God desires heart. Aharon, felt left out because he didn’t get to participate in the grand dedication. God explains: “I don’t need grandeur, just sincerity and consistency. Aharon, when you light the Menorah each day, I know that you will do it with a heart filled with love and dedication. I know you will kindle each lamp with the fire of sincerity and purity. I don’t need your light, I want your light. I have the sun, the moon and the stars, but when you kindle those little flames they illuminate the entire celestial sphere. Your gift of light is the most precious gift I can receive.”
The gifts of the tribal princes were beautiful and precious, but they are not representative of what God wants and expects of us on a daily basis. God wants us to kindle our Menorah. Do something which produces light in the world, even if it is just a small little flame. God doesn’t demand spiritually heroic activity from us, He just asks for activity. But there is something else. Make sure to produce light each and every day. The Menorah was kindled every single day. This is the message of consistency. The tribal princes brought their offerings once; God wants us to create consistent light.
The Midrashic king only visited his childhood friend once. Our King looks to be with us each and every day. The words which comforted Aharon can provide us with the strength to move forward in life. We each have moments when we are like the Tribal Princes. Moments, when we do spiritually dramatic things, moments of sacrifice and selflessness and spiritual heroism. But these are just moments. More important is to be like Aharon, kindle our Menorah of personal growth every day. We don’t have to create a raging fire of accomplishment, just a small spark of goodness and holiness. We don’t have to illuminate the entire world, just our own individual souls. We don’t have to be perfect, but we must ascend and kindle each and every day.
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