“Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt.” (Shemos 18:1)
What motived Yisro to leave his life of comfort and prominence in Midyan, journey to the middle of the desert and join the fledgling Jewish nation? What moved Yisro to give up the priesthood of Midyan with its fame and fortune and embrace the God of Israel? The Talmud quotes various opinions. Some explain that he heard about the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea, others explain he heard of the exceptional Jewish bravery in the battle against Amaleykand still others maintain it was the awesome glory of Sinaitic revelation that caused Yisro to travel from Midyan to the Jewish encampment. Whatever the reason, Yisro felt a burning desire to connect and be part of the Jewish people. Yet, only a few verses later the Torah states, “Moses saw his father in law off, and he went away to his land.” (Shemos 18:27) The Torah in Bamidbar tells us that Yisro said to Moshe, “… I will travel back to my home and to my birthplace.” (Bamidbar 10:30) Why did Yisro leave? Why did Yisro choose to return home after he had sacrificed so much to join the Jewish people?
hen Menachem Mendel from the city of Kotzk was a young boy, he was convinced by an acquaintance to spend some time learning by the great Chassidic master, the Chozeh (Seer) of Lublin (Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, 1745-1815). After a few months away from home, Menachem Mendel’s father, upset that his son had chosen to follow in the ways of Chassidus (Menachem Mendel’s family were “misnagdim,” those opposed to the Chassidic movement), decided to travel to Lublin to persuade his young son to return home. When he found his son in the home of the Chozeh, he said, “Menachem Mendel, this is not the way I raised you, this is not the tradition of your forefathers, I beg of you, return with me and embrace the path of service of your ancestors.” Menachem Mendel replied quoting a verse from the Shira (song) in last week’s Parsha, “….this is my God (Zeh Keyli), and I will make Him great, the God of my father (Elokay Avi), and I will ascribe to Him exaltation.” (Shemos 15:2) “Father, I fully embrace all you have taught and conveyed to me, I fully accept the ideas and ideals you have imprinted on my soul. But it is not enough for me to live with “your God,” I must find “my God.” You have given me Elokay Avi, the God of my father, now I must find and cultivate a relationship with Zeh Keyli, my personal God.” Young Menachem Mendel grew up to become the famed Chassidic luminary, Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859).
The Kotzker teaches us a profound idea. There are two components in man’s relationship with God:
Elokai Avi, the God of my father – each of us inherits a spiritual legacy from the generations that preceded us. I learn the spiritual ideals and outlooks of my parents. I accept their values and appreciate their philosophy and theology.
Zeh Keyli, this is my God – but I must also strive to forge my own personal and special bond with God. I must discover, “My God,” I must uncover what makes me unique and use it to build a bond between myself and my Father above.
Perhaps this is why Yisro went back to Midyan. When Yisro camped with the Jewish people, the text refers to him as “Chosein Moshe, (the father in law of Moshe)” – his individual identity eclipsed by his relationship to the Prophet of Israel. Although it was a great honor to be identified as Moshe’s father-in-law, Yisro felt that he had personal contributions to make. He journeyed to the Jewish people to learn and understand God and His Torah. He journeyed to the Jewish people to establish a spiritual foundation. Once this foundation was solidified, Yisro knew he had to build his individual bond with the Almighty. This individuality was to be expressed in his ability to influence his family, friends and community back in Midyan. It would have been easy to remain with the Jewish people and bask in the perpetual holiness and revelation. But he knew he had the potential to influence and help shape the theological and spiritual thinking of others. He had to go back to Midyan. He came to the desert to find Elokai Avi and now it was his mission to find his Zeh Keyli; his personal God.
We each possess collective and individual identities. Our collective identity is forged by the generations who came before us. This identity is solidified through the lessons of our parents and their parents before them. But collective, historical identity is not enough. We must strive to create our own unique relationships and personal connections to God. We must try to find our individual strengths, talents and abilities and use them in the service of God. We may observe the same mitzvos, recite the same prayers and share common practices but we are individualistically unique when it comes to our relationship with God. We each nurture our Elokay Avi and celebrate our Zeh Keyli.
Life Lessons from the Weekly Parsha – A Women’s Shiur.
“It came about on the next day that Moses sat down to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening. When Moses’ father in law saw what he was doing to the people, he said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening?’ Moses said to his father in law, ‘For the people come to me to seek God. If any of them has a case, he comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make known the statutes of God and His teachings.’ Moses’ father in law said to him, ‘The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will advise you, and may the Lord be with you. [You] represent the people before God, and you shall bring the matters to God.’” (Exodus 13-19)
Yisro made the journey from Midian to come and join the Jewish people as they traveled through the desert to the Promised Land. The reunion was emotional; Moshe greeted his esteemed father in law and was reunited with Tzipora and his sons. But by the next morning it was back to business as usual for the Jewish leader and he sat in judgement, resolving the disputes and adjudicating the disagreements of the nation. Yisro saw this “one-man show” and told Moshe that such a system is unsustainable, “you can’t do it alone.” Yisro advised Moshe to set up a court system. Moshe accepted the mussar and implemented the suggestion.
But why did Yisro have to suggest this idea? The problem was obvious. One man (even Moshe Rabbeinu) can’t serve as the sole judge for an entire nation. The solution is seemingly straightforward: create a judicial framework. Why didn’t Moshe execute this idea on his own? Why did it take Yisro’ s prodding to bring the Judaic judicial framework into existence?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Likutei Sichos) provides an incredible insight. Moshe received the Torah with complete clarity and spiritual luminescence. This was a result of the fact it was transmitted directly from God to him. This level of clarity is called re’iah, literally, sight. Moshe understood the Torah with the clarity of someone who had seen something with his own eyes. The Jewish people didn’t receive the communication directly from God, instead they chose to receive the Torah from Moshe (after the first two commandments). Their understanding was through the mechanism of shmiah, listening or hearing. Moshe wanted to convey the Torah to the people with the clarity with which he received it. His experience was the pinnacle of spiritual perfection and he wanted to share this experience with the people by adjudicating their cases, settling their disputes and teaching them through the prism of his clarity. He wanted it to be perfect. Yisro tells him, “My beloved son-in-law, your intentions are so good and pure. But if it is perfection you seek, navol tibol gam ata gam ha’am ha’zeh, you will surely wear yourself out both yourself and these people who are with you.” The goal can’t be perfection, the goal must be “good.” As the French author Voltaire wrote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Perfection is rarely achievable and if by some miracle it is achieved, it cannot be sustained. Moshe, would ruin himself and the people in the pursuit of perfection.
Yisro’s judicial framework idea was not novel to Moshe. Moshe must have thought about it many times. But in Moshe’s mind, the idea of a judiciary framework that was “good” but not “perfect” was not acceptable. Yisro came along and explained, “the pursuit of perfect will run you and the nation into the ground.”
Who is correct? Do we pursue “perfect” or “good”? In the end, Moshe accepted Yisro’s advice and established a system of judges and courts. This dispute is something we struggle with each and every day. We all want “perfect.” We want a perfect marriage, we want perfect children and we want a perfect career. We want our friends to do exactly what we need, when we need it and for life to follow our predetermined, charted course. And when our desires and aspirations don’t materialize perfectly we become frustrated and upset. But the goal should never be “perfect.” The goal is “great” (or even “good” depending on circumstance). If one expects a perfect marriage, it requires a perfect spouse. There is no human being who can deliver in that way. If we expect perfect children, we are setting them up for failure. If we wait to take advantage of life’s opportunities until the perfect one arrives, we will miss out on all the great opportunities which present themselves every single day.
Perfection is alluring but not realistic. We must resist the temptation of perfection and embrace the good, great and excellent. Moshe was fortunate to have a Yisro to whisper in his ear. We are privileged to have a Torah which lights our way. May we find the strength to see the goodness in our loved ones and the greatness in our opportunities for connection and growth.
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