A father-in-law makes the difficult decision to tell his married daughter and his grandsons who live in his household that they should reunite with their father who is encamped at the Mountain of God. This is not an ordinary family since the son-in-law happens to be a political leader of a nation-in-the-making, an overburdened very public man and not exactly marriage material with very little time for family responsibilities. The father-in-law knows about the prominence and fame of the leader yet his compassion for his son in-law is so remarkable that this week’s Parsha (Exodus 18:1-20:23) takes its name Yitro from this father-in-law a Midianite priest the father of Moses’ wife.
The names of Moses’ wife, her sons and her father serve as markers for significant events in their lives. It would be helpful to preface the discussion of their names by noting that personal names in Torah are inflected by acts and events and have a function in the narrative. In the book of Genesis for example, when Abram and Sarai achieve full personhood they are given by God an added letter and their names become Abraham and Sarah to mark their new status as ancestors of a future nation. Similarly, Jacob who survives a struggle with an angel is being told, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with people and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Jacob acquires his name Israel to indicate his transition to his future status as a forefather of a people.
In Parshat Yitro names are indicators of key life events of each family member. For Zipporah, her name is woven into the story of her marriage to Moses. According to Midrash Zipporah, whose name comes from the Hebrew word bird, upon hearing that her father intends to marry one of his seven daughters to Moses runs with the swiftness of a bird toward Moses because she loves him and wants to make sure that she reaches him first. The father-sons relationship is inscribed in the names that Moses gave his sons, names that mark intense milestones in his life, “one was named Gershom, that is to say, ‘I have been a stranger (Ger) in a foreign land;’ and the other was named Eliezer, meaning ‘The God of my father was my help, and God delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh” (18:3-4). Yitro’s journey to unify his daughter and her sons with her husband is infused with Yitro’s compassion for the members of his family. Yitro understands Zipporah’s love for her husband and the connection between his grandsons and Moses.
If Yitro knows of these deep familial bonds it opens up some obvious questions: why is the family dispersed, why is Zipporah living in her father’s house while Moses goes to Egypt to deliver God’s message, “Let my people go.”
The narrative in Torah does not offer an explanation for the geographic distance between Moses and his family. The Midrash, however, wants to fill in the details, to makes sense of Moses’ separation from his wife and children. The Midrash proposes that the parting happened because of Moses’ compassion for them, suggesting that he wanted to shield his family from possible harm or retribution in Egypt where he worked hard to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrew slaves go. Now that the exodus has taken place and the news of the Israelites’ victory have spread among the nations, Yitro decides that the time has come to unite the family. The narrative picks up the thread at the end of the journey at the Mountain of God as Yitro “sent word to Moses, ‘I your father-in-law Yitro, am coming to you, with your wife and two sons.’ Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent” (18:6-7).
While the narrative is silent about the meeting between the spouses or between father and sons it offers a detailed account of the encounter between Yitro and Moses and of their warm and affectionate relationship. Yitro acts during his visit far beyond his formal role as father-in-law and hence the root of his name in Hebrew yeter meaning, exceeding, more, above and beyond.
At the encampment at the Mountain of God, Yitro watches his son-in-law Moses surrounded daily by a multitude of desperate people seeking God, by people eager to be heard, and cases of strife that need adjudication. Moses alone functions as listener, judge and teacher, which is clearly an impossible task. Yitro takes on a parental/elder role and speaks to Moses in a way that no other person could, not even Aaron Moses’ older brother. Yitro addresses Moses with clarity, candor and compassion, ”the thing that you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me and God will be with you” (18:17-19)
At the Mountain of God Yitro draws for Moses a plan to establish a judicial system made up of God-fearing men who are upright, resist bribes and are truthful. “Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves.” “Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said” (18:24). The narrative states that Yitro’s judicial design worked well and that “Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way to his own land.”
At one level the Yitro narrative seems almost insignificant, a mere in-laws’ encounter wedged between two historically pivotal moments, between the Exodus and revelation at mount Sinai where the Israelites would actually experience their passage/transition from a multitude of bewildered freed slave into a people a with a covenant with God. Read in a larger context of Torah, however, the Yitro account offers an amplification/addition/more (yeter) of the deep meaning of the covenant since Torah keeps reminding the Israelites that the covenant with God includes an ethics of compassion.
The slavery experience inscribed in the first commandment at Sinai, “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of Egypt, the house of bondage” embodies God’s compassion for the suffering Israelites, it is reiterated in Torah as a reminder to treat people with compassion across ethnic/religious lines and it appears earlier than the revelation at Sinai. An ethic of compassion is demonstrated in Genesis in Abraham’s concern for innocent people in Sodom and Gomorra, in Exodus in the midwives refusal to kill the Hebrew babies, in the Egyptian daughter of Pharaoh in saving Moses life, and in Yitro a Midianite who stayed around to help Moses establish a legal system where people, rich and poor could bring their cases and be heard.
Torah inscribes an ethic of compassion that is universal, across differences and timeless and invites us to see ourselves always at Har HaElohim, the Mountain of God and consider how we could act with more (yeter) compassion in our own social world.