These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PCJE Dvar Torah] Yitro/Reuel Midrash by Annie Matan Gilbert

Posted on January 31, 2013 by Annie Matan Gilbert

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This week’s parsha, Yitro, mentions Moses’ father-in-law (known by seven names in Tanakh.)  In Yitro, he swoops in, Jean-Luc Picard style, to teach Moses how to delegate and manage his community more efficiently and then swoops out again.

Yitro and Moses after the first day of training

Yitro and Moses after the first day of training

This midrash was written at Pardes in 2009-2010 and tells the story of their meeting and how their mentor-mentee relationship came about.

If you’re interested, you can find more of my writing on my website:


Reuel, Friend of Gd

I touched my forehead to the earth at my tent’s entrance at the end of my midday prayer, as I do each morning, noon and evening.  I intended to rise again and return to the ebb and flow of my afternoon in preparation for the return of my daughters but as soon as my skin touched the earth, its coolness enveloped me like a black night.  I settled my weight onto my hands at my ears and turned my cheek to the earth to hear its rumble more clearly.

“Ooold Friend,” it said.  The voice came neither from earth nor from sky.  I could feel it tremble in my bones.  “Friend of El”.  My eyelids felt heavy and the vibrating of this voice inside me was like sweet water on this hot, dry day.  I never wanted to rise again.  I knew this voice and its timbre and I welcomed it as I had done every time before.

“Friend, he is coming,” Elohim[1] told me.  “He will arrive today.  Do not forget your promise.  Welcome him and do not let him continue on his way.  Today is the day the prophecy will take root in your home.  Soon, the son of water[2] meets earth and fire and sky.  Today, you will take him and begin to make him ready for Me.”  The rumbling continued for a time and I received its message like a thirsty man drinking from a flowing stream.  I knew this voice better than my own.  I was grateful for each taste of Elohim in my old age.  Grateful to know that God was still with me.  After years of service[3], the true purpose I had been preparing for was finally at hand.

This man, when he arrived, was weather-worn and thin and not a little ragged.  He looked the part of an Egyptian and I knew at once that he was the one for whom I was waiting[4].  And I could see I had my work cut out for me.  How to turn this man into the One that Elohim needed?

He called himself Moses.  An Egyptian name[5].  But his eyes held a different story.  One of wildness, exhaustion and fear.  Every wrinkle of his torn clothes was filled with sand.  He walked as though he had been pushing into the wind for a long time.  His back was bent under the weight of whatever burden he had been carrying and his skin was ruddy and marked by the sun.  He looked like the Hebrews that Elohim showed me sometimes in my dreams.  His words were carefully chosen and he was all too ready to eat at the table of a strange man.  When my daughters told me how he had chased away the local ruffians at the well, I took note of the brave and feisty heart beneath his chapped skin.  I invited him to stay and watched him closely over the days that passed, marveling at Elohim’s choice.  This man moved slowly and deliberately, as if in a waking dream.  I wondered how to awaken him.  I wondered how to open his eyes to a destiny that even I, with years of training and service and meditation and prayer couldn’t really comprehend.  How to introduce him to Elohim?  To himself?

I, Reuel, Priest of Midian and friend of Elohim for generations, had seven adopted daughters[6] in my line.  Seven priestesses who have loved Elohim as I do.  Seven women grown who were ready to take on any life that Elohim asked of her.  Elohim sent them to me over the many years of my service.  One by one, they arrived, sent by their families to serve and to learn the ways of the divine path, the divine will.  They grew into their names.  The names of their callings.  Their old, foreign names were lost on the wind and my beautiful daughters became Gevira, Orli, Tzipora, Shlomit, Batya, Zahara, and Elisheva.  Each one had her part to play in her service to Elohim.  Each one would one day marry and raise a family with a man who would become a servant also.  Each path was woven long before these women arrived at my threshold.

This man, this lost and quiet wanderer needed to be awakened.  Elohim wanted him for a special purpose.  I had no trouble welcoming him into my household.  I could sometimes see him admiring my daughters but he seldom spoke to them and never sought their company alone.  He took to Elohim’s ways without fear and without question.  He still moved as though in pain and received instruction without meeting my eyes.  I worried that he was lost and broken.  I gave him to Tzipora[7], my songbird and the one who can awaken the yearning of a man’s heart, loins or destiny with a well-placed lullaby[8].

Their wedding feast was a lovely affair.  She didn’t weep to be joined to this kind wanderer.  I think she may even have loved him all along.  She danced her last maiden dance with her sisters and they all sang her on her way to her new tent with her new husband and charge.  The sunset on the night of their wedding was glorious.  The sky was red and gold and purple and blue.  And the moon shone silver as they disappeared into their tent.  I knew all these colours from my visions of Elohim’s sacred place.  A place that yet had no name and no one to build it[9].  I thought this sunset a sign that Elohim approved of my choice.

I prayed and I waited for a sign that this man’s eyes and heart could truly be opened.  I waited and I served Elohim every day, instructing my daughters in the ways of the future, tending my flock of sheep with the same gentle hand I felt guiding me each day on my own path.  Over time, Moses came to learn the ways of our people.  He was a good shepherd.  Tender and firm with the sheep, never losing any to surrounding settlements or wild animals.  Aside from my household, who had become his family, people were wary of him.  His wiry body and haunted eyes kept them away.

Time passed and Tzipora kept me abreast of Moses’ progress.  She pointed out his ever-lengthening stride and his strong shoulders and back, turning a healthy brown in the sun and straightening a little more with the waxing and waning of every moon.  Little by little, he became a man grown and proud and comfortable in his own skin.  Tzipora glowed, first with the pride of a happy wife well-met, and soon with a honey glow of a mother-to-be.

I heard the rumbling of Elohim a handful of times over those long months.  Mostly, I knew to be patient while the voice that filled my ears was my own deep bass, sending my prayers into the earth as I prostrated myself to Elohim’s will in the doorway of my tent.  I asked for a sign that this man would be ready.  I prayed that he would learn the skills he needed to become the great leader I knew he was meant to be.

Tzipora bore Moses a strong son.  And when Moses named him “Gershom”, saying “for I was a stranger in a foreign land”[10], I knew his eyes at last were open.  This man was beginning to see himself and his place and a journey that was unfolding before him like a vast and unending sea.  I could see it in his now clear gaze and in the new agitation he wore barely concealed under his skin.  I knew it was time.

[11]We set out with the sheep at sunrise, headed for the Mountain.  He walked beside me in comfortable silence.  I felt the peace of a man whose quest was almost over.  I prayed for him under my breath, wondering if he really understood that his own work had barely just begun.

As we walked, Moses shared with me the dream that had returned him to himself.  Shortly before the birth of his son, Moses dreamt of the place he had always thought of as home – of Egypt.  He told me, “In my dream, I saw the death of my father, the Pharaoh of Egypt.  I saw my brother, Ramses take the throne and I saw my people.”  As he spoke, the haunted look returned to his eyes.  “I saw my brother and my sister and thousands of others.  And so much suffering.  I saw too much.”[12]

I let out a deep breath and thought of all the times I had seen this same dream.  I remembered how strange it had been and I remembered wondering why I had been a witness to the suffering of these strange people in a place I had never known.  Over the years, I learned that the dream was not meant for me.  I was only its keeper until God’s chosen one arrived and could take it from me.  The torch was passed.  I was relieved to let it go.

We walked on for a time and Moses added, “I woke that morning with the sobs and cries of my people in my ears.  My bed was damp with my own tears.  And Hovev[13],” he called me, “I swear it was as if those tears washed the apathy from my eyes.  I know they were the tears of my people in the brick pits of Egypt.  And knowing what is happening to them, I don’t understand Elohim.  I am afraid for my people and I feel something coming.  It feels like a great sandstorm before a red sunrise.”

I said nothing so he looked into my eyes and what he saw there had him nod once and look to the horizon ahead of us, searching.

When we arrived at the foot of the mountain, I sent him on alone and sat in the dust to wait.  He took no food and no water and no donkey.  I knew where he was going and why.  I knew he was ready to receive the mantle of his vocation, and to meet the One who set him on this path the very day he was born.

For the first time, when I felt the rumbling voice roll through me during my evening prayers, I knew I was not hearing it alone.  I felt it pass through me and heard it echo nearby in the deepest, hottest, driest part of the desert, where I knew a wise man was taking my place in the order of things.  After my prayers, I dozed and waited.

I was startled out of a confused dream about scattering sheep and shrieking winds when Moses shook me awake.  The desert was peaceful and the flock unharmed.  I was disoriented and groggy.  When I stood and took his measure, I saw that his face was pale and his cheeks had a hollow look.

“I have to go back,” he told me in barely more than a whisper.  He was knocking the earth with his staff, making small holes in a circle around his foot.  We both knew exactly where he meant.  I put my hand on his shoulder to steady us both.

“Elohim has chosen me but I am afraid He has made a mistake.”[14]  He looked miserable and for a moment, I worried that the mistake was mine and that this worn-down shepherd was not Elohim’s chosen one after all.  But when he met my eyes again, I could see all of Moses’ doubt and fear and longing on fire inside him and I knew that I had done well.

“Elohim doesn’t make mistakes,” I told him.  “Moses, I wish your path were an easier one, truly.  But it is you whom Elohim has chosen.  And it is you who must heed Elohim’s call.  You are ready.”  Moses, my protégé and my son and my hope only nodded and swallowed hard.  I watched his adam’s apple bob in his throat.  I waited for denial or outrage but neither came.  I picked up my staff and we turned together toward our camp, to his wife and new baby.  To the life he had fallen into and to the training ground for his service to God, who has always known him better than he could have imagined, better than we know ourselves.

We returned home when the sky was dark and the stars were high.  Tzipora greeted us with hot water for our feet and Moses kissed her right in front of me, like a starving man.  She wrapped her arms around him and I left them in their embrace and retired to my tent to wait for sunrise and my next opportunity to speak with Elohim.

I rose in the morning and lay my forehead on the earth but when there was no answering rumble, I knew in my bones that it had left me forever.  At first I felt only emptiness and the growing heat of the day but over time, I began to feel lighter.  Moses’ burden had been lifted from me and passed on to its rightful bearer.  The Hebrews’ plight would soon be over.  My daughters would live the lives of regular women with husbands and babies and I could be just a father-in-law and a shepherd to sheep.  My tent would always be a place of ritual and every morning noon and night, my forehead would kiss the earth in gratitude.  I thought I could grow accustomed to the quiet.

That evening, when the sun dipped low, there were clouds and there were colours.  The sky was afire with crimson flame, purple and teal shadows, golden stars and a great silver moon.  I retired to my tent and dreamt of a mountain on fire and a sky filled with thunder.[15]

[1] The choice to refer to God as Elohim comes from Har Elohim in Shmot 3:1.  This name of the mountain suggests that the surrounding community knew it to be a place where God, Elohim, could be found.

[2] Moses was reborn from the water of the Nile when Pharaoh’s daughter found and adopted him in Shmot 2:3, 5.

According to Rashi, the Hebrew name, Moses, comes from the root masha – to draw out.

[3]As the Kohen “priest” of Midian, I believe Reuel was in service to God.

His name, רעאל – can be translated to mean either shepherd or friend of God, either of which could be a title for this priest, in his service to God.

Midrash Exodus Rabbah 1:32, Tanchuma, Shmot 11 teaches that Reuel was ostracized from his community for abandoning idolatry, which supports the idea that he was a practicing monotheist before Moses arrived.

There is precedent for a non-Jewish priest with Malchitzedek, Kohen of El Elyon, who intervenes with Avraham in Breishit 14:18.

[4]Rashi says Reuel recognized him [Moses]… for the well water rose toward him. [From Exod. Rabbah 1:32, Tanchuma Shmot 11]

[5] In Egyptian, the name Mose means son, like the Hebrew ben.

[6] The choice to distinguish Reuel’s daughters as adopted priestesses is my own.  There is no mention of a wife for Reuel or a mother for his daughters.

One could draw on Shmot 2:18, “they came to their father, Reuel” to support the idea that they came to him rather than being born to him.

[7] Shmot 2:21 says Tzipora is given to Moses to marry but I chose to give him to her to be awakened and healed.

[8] From the Aramaic- צפר- “morning; bird; a loud, shrill sound”, all of which are connected to waking up.

[9] Colours of the Mishkan. Shmot 25:4

[10] Shmot 2:22.  This is the moment that Moses is able to articulate a resolution to his identity crisis.  He sees that he is not an Egyptian.

[11] The key premise of this story is that the majority of the 40 years between Moses’ departure from Egypt when he flees as a young man and his return to confront Pharaoh at age 80 is spent with Reuel.  There, Reuel heals Moses, facilitates his introduction to God and trains and prepares him to be a leader of the Israelites.
In Parshat Yitro, Reuel arrives on the scene to continue Moses’ training and help him set up a court system.

Bamidbar 10:31 supports that Moses and Reuel (Yitro here) have a history in the wilderness and Yitro is a helpful guide to him.
In Shmot 18:1, Rashi makes reference to Mechilta telling us that Moses attributes his own greatness to his father-in-law.

[12] In the Torah narrative, the verse that immediately follows Moses’ awakening feels to me like an insertion to remind us of what is happening in Egypt, in order to foreshadow Moses’ return.  I interpret that this scene was revealed to Moses in a dream.  If Tzipora is the catalyst that brings Moses back to himself, this dream is what reminds him of who he is and raises in him questions about his purpose.

[13] Meaning Beloved, this is one of the seven names of Yitro/Reuel, and Rashi introduces it in his commentary on the text in Shmot 18:1.

[14] Shmot 4:10

[15] Allusion to Har Sinai at the moment of revelation. Shmot 19:16-18