“Be Our Eyes”: Moses’ Appeal to Yitro—by Matia Kam

Yitro’s burial place  in Druze tradition In Nabi Shu’ayb in the
Yitro’s burial place
in Druze tradition
In Nabi Shu’ayb in the Galilee

“Be our eyes” is Moses appeal to his father in law Yitro, asking him to accompany the Israelites on their journey to the promised land. Moses turns to Yitro with a heartfelt plea, “Please do not leave us since you know where we should camp in the desert and you can be our eyes.” This emotional appeal raises the question: why and how could Yitro a Midianite priest be the eyes of the Israelites? (Numbers, 10:29-32).

“To be the eyes” surely means to guide, to direct, but the fact is that the Israelites already had the presence of the pillar of cloud that “would guide them on the road” by day and the pillar of fire to give them light at night (Exodus 10:21-22). If the Israelites already had a day-and-night protective presence why would Moses ask for Yitro’s guidance?

The Sephardi commentator Rabbeinu Behaye ben Asher addresses the question to say that Moses understood that the people had a hard time with an abstract presence of a pillar of cloud (and fire) to lead them; they needed a more immediate human presence that could be touched and trusted and would “give courage to those of little faith who would be heartened and comforted by the presence of a human leader.”

Ramban writes that Yitro a renowned Midianite leader was familiar with the landscape and could guide them along the way and in case of war. Don Isaac Abarbanel added that Yitro was an experienced and wise adviser who in his previous visit to Moses at the Mountain of God demonstrated his wisdom advising Moses how to govern a people (Exodus 18). The Israelites already viewed Yitro as a trusted leader.

Moses’ appeal to Yitro to be the eyes for the people echoes his previous visit in using the word “see” as a link with the earlier description, which said, “Yitro saw”; what he saw then was that Moses took on the impossible task of judging and adjudication all by himself. What Yitro “saw” was in the broader sense an understanding of Moses’ predicament and offering Moses a practical workable system of justice. Yitro talked to Moses of the need to have the wisdom of “seeing” people for who they are.” As he told Moses, “and you shall see/identify capable men who follow God (God abiding) people of truth who spurn bribe” and who would be leaders in the new justice system.

Yitro’s wisdom is cast in the broader sense of ”Yitro saw” as he suggested to Moses to use his own discerning eye (in the Hebrew, teheze) to find people fit to be judges and leaders.

Moses knew that Yitro could see the difficulties facing the people and was able to identify the required solutions and therefor asked Yitro to stay with the Israelites on their journey and be their eyes. Rashi offers a similar interpretation, that Moses said to Yitro that “everything that would escape our eyes, you will open our eyes to it.” Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson added, “you would be our eyes to offer us good advice,” since Yitro has already done so in his previous visit.

This account of Moses asking Yitro a Midianite priest to stay and “be our eyes” underscores Torah’s view of wisdom as a universal quality; it is explicitly indicated in the fact that a Parsha in Exodus is named Yitro.

Translated from the Hebrew by Ayala Emmett