These and Those

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

Mission: Perplexing

Posted on January 17, 2014 by David Bogomolny

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Tonight, in Berlin, I am sharing this dvar Torah with my
fellow Pardesniks and other Germany Close Up participants -
Shabbat Shalom, Everyone!

80g0m01nyIn reviewing Parshat Yitro, I find myself drawn to the four psukim (verses) of the 3rd Aliyah – much happens in these lines – a story in and of itself!

The Book of Exodus 18:24-27 (3rd Aliyah)

כד וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה, לְקוֹל חֹתְנוֹ; וַיַּעַשׂ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר אָמָר. 24 So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said.
כה וַיִּבְחַר מֹשֶׁה אַנְשֵׁי-חַיִל מִכָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם רָאשִׁים עַל-הָעָם–שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת. 25 And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.
כו וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, בְּכָל-עֵת: אֶת-הַדָּבָר הַקָּשֶׁה יְבִיאוּן אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, וְכָל-הַדָּבָר הַקָּטֹן יִשְׁפּוּטוּ הֵם. 26 And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves.
כז וַיְשַׁלַּח מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-חֹתְנוֹ; וַיֵּלֶךְ לוֹ, אֶל-אַרְצוֹ. 27 Moses VaYiSHLaCH his father-in-law; and he went his way into his own land. *trans. JPS

This Aliyah ends with Jethro’s departure in pasuk 27, bringing an abrupt close to the eighteenth perek (chapter) of the Book of Exodus; but he doesn’t simply leave on his own as we might have expected… Moses VaYiSHLaCH his father-in-law; and he went…” but what does this word וַיְשַׁלַּח actually mean? Does it mean ‘to send’? ‘to dispatch’? ‘to release’?

According to the Ibn Ezra1) and later HaEmek Davar2), this phrasing suggests that Moses respectfully escorted his father-in-law away, rather than dispatching him, as we might have thought at first. The Malbim3) posits that Jethro “did not want to go with” the Israelites at this stage, lending support to Rashi’s position4) that he intentionally left in order to convert his Midianite family to Judaism. Certainly most of the Commentators interpret VaYiSHLaCH in a similar way – and they clearly felt a need to clarify the Torah’s meaning here.

Nevertheless, a certain source makes a very different set of assumptions about why Jethro had to leave the Israelites. The Midrash Aggadah (as cited in the Torah Temimah by R’ Baruch Epstein) actually suggests that Moses sent his father-in-law away because Jethro hadn’t experienced the Israelites’ suffering at Egyptian hands, and therefore did not merit to join them at Mount Sinai:

Midrash Aggadah

מדרש אגדה: (כז) וישלח משה את חותנו, מכאן שכל המצטער בצער צבור זוכה ורואה בנחמת ציבור, ויתרו לא היה בצער ציבור, לא זכה בנחמתן, ואיזו נחמה, זו מתן תורה ולכך משה שלח את חותנו. (27) Moses VaYiSHLaCH his father-in-law, from this [we learn] that everyone who suffers the tribulations of the community merits and sees the comfort of the community, but Jethro [did not experience] the tribulations of the community [and so] did not merit their comfort; and what comfort [was this]? This is the Giving of the Torah; and so Moses sent his father-in-law [away]. *trans. DB

At the beginning of perek 18 Jethro arrives at the Israelite camp, and reunites his son-in-law with his wife and children. Then in Exodus 18:17-23, he suggests a structured, hierarchical judicial system to Moses, in order that the younger man not wear himself ragged hearing all of the Israelites’ conflicts. He is rather reminiscent of a modern shaliach (emissary, messenger) who leaves his home to support the development of a distant community.


Certainly, not every shaliach is necessarily successful at building strong relationships with members of hir host community; some are beloved, and some find themselves perpetual “others”. The temporary nature of shlichut makes this particularly challenging, and can impact the shaliach’s effectiveness. Jethro, according to Midrash Aggadah, remained an “other” despite his good intentions, and even despite Moses’ ready adoption of his plan. Just imagine how much more he could have accomplished if only he’d been able to stay!

In the context of this Midrash, Moses’ actions are somewhat perplexing. Does he follow his father-in-law’s advice despite Jethro’s “otherness”? Does he only make the decision to send Jethro away after taking his advice? Was Jethro an “other” in the Israelite community from his very arrival? Perhaps Moses deserves credit for looking past his father-in-law’s “otherness” and heeding his advice – Jethro couldn’t empathize with the Israelites’ trauma, but… what if being an “other” in their community actually allowed Jethro a more clearheaded, outside-of-the-box perspective, which Moses was able to appreciate?

Only an undisputed authority figure such as Moses could have realized Jethro’s plan so readily and effectively, whereas today’s shaliach would have had a harder time implementing hir project without a single, central leader to turn to. So what would a modern day Jethro do? What could he do?

As we’re now celebrating our final Shabbat with Germany Close Up, it’s fitting that a historic German rabbi should grant us some insight, as R’ S. R. Hirsch does in his commentary on Exodus 18:26, the pasuk just before Jethro’s departure:

R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808 –1888, Germany)

(26) יִשְׁפּוּטוּ [YiSHPuTu – they judged] is an unusual form for ישפטו… We would suggest that יִשְׁפּוּטוּ may be a composite form made up of the singular and plural, of ישפוט and ישפטו, and then would express the idea that the decisions that they make ישפטו would also really be the decisions of Moses ישפוט, they would be given in his spirit and in accordance with the principles and rules they had received from him…

In this analysis, R’ Hirsch teases meaning out of the unusual structure of the word YiSHPuTu, which he posits is “made up of [both] the singular and plural”, suggesting that the newly appointed judges somehow channeled Moses’ wisdom in their rulings without conferring with him directly. In other words, the success of Jethro’s hierarchical system ultimately hinged not upon Moses, but upon the Jews who carried out Jethro’s plan, informed by and inspired by Moses.

Today, this is what a successful shaliach must engender among the members of hir host community. Here in Berlin, for example, there is no one central leader; and yet the rabbis of its various religious communities have succeeded at nurturing their respective seedling congregations, each founded in Moses’ spirit and “in accordance with [his] principles”. The shaliach’s challenge is to empower decentralized, often leaderless Jewish communities to access their Mosaic heritage – so that they may build upon his spirit and teachings.

And so, with great respect, I wish the extended Jewish community of Berlin and its leaders that they only continue to rise from success to success. As for the rest of us, may we all find our voices as shlichim for Germany Close Up, sharing the many lessons of our travels with others, and may we all be prepared for circumstances that might thrust us again into the roles of shlichim in the future.


[expand title=”1) R’ Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089–1164, Spain)”]

ראב”ע הארוך: (כז) וישלח, דרך כבוד, כמו ואברהם הולך עמם לשלחם (ברא’ יח:טז). Ibn Ezra: (27) VaYiSHLaCH, in a respectful way, like ‘Abraham went with them to bring them on the way’ (Gen. 18:16). *trans. JPS


[expand title=”2) R’ Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, (1816 –1893, Russia, Poland)”]

העמק דבר: (כז) וישלח משה. לוה אותו בכבוד, ולמדנו בזה שמה שחלק לו כבוד בבואו לא היה בשביל שהביא אשתו ובניו, שהרי גם בצאתו ואשתו ובניו נשארו עמו, מכ”מ חלק לו כבוד. . . HaEmek Davar: (27) Moses VaYiSHLaCH – he escorted him with respect, and we learn by this that what accorded him respect upon his arrival wasn’t that he brought [Moses’] wife and sons, for with his departure his wife and sons remained with him, but he still accorded him respect… *trans. DB


[expand title=”3) R’ Meïr Leibush ben Jehiel Michel Wisser (1809 – 1879, Ukraine)”]

מלבים: (כז) וישלח משה, למ”ד קודם מ”ת בא יתרו כפי פשטות הכתובים וסדרם, ישב שם יתרו שנה תמימה, כי בעת שרצה לכנס לא”י אז ויאמר משה לחובב וגו’ נוסעים אנחנו אל המקום וכו’ לכה אתנו וכו’ (במדבר י), ובעת ההיא עשה כדבר יתרו במנוי השופטים ויתרו לא רצה ללכת אתם וישלח משה את חותנו. Malbim: (27) Moses VaYiSHLaCH; according to the one who says that Jethro arrived before the Giving of the Torah, by the simple reading of the Scriptures and their order, Jethro settled there for a whole year, for when he wanted to enter Eretz Israel, ‘And Moses said unto Hobab… ‘We are journeying unto the place…come with us…’’ (Numbers 10:29-30), but at the time he appointed judges as Jethro said, Jethro did not want to go with them; and Moses VaYiSHLaCH his father-in-law. *trans. DB


[expand title=”4) R’ Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040 – 1105, France)”]

רש”י:(כז) וילך לו אל ארצו, לגייר בני משפחתו. Rashi: (27) ‘and he went his way into his own land’, to convert his family. *trans. DB