Look Who's Watching

Jethro wanted to go home. His son-in-law, Moses, did not want him to leave. Jethro had come to the Israelites immediately prior to their receiving the Torah, and had witnessed the revelation. Now he wished to return to his land, the land of Midian, and this made Moses concerned. "Please do not leave us," he said, "for you have known our encampment in the desert, and you will be for us [like] eyes."

The commentators are divided on the question of whether Jethro agreed with Moses and stayed with the Israelites or returned to his land. There are also a number of interpretations as to why he Moses wanted him to remain. The Torah gives great emphasis to this dialogue, so it must be of tremendous significance for the future of the Jewish people. What is that significance?

The most literal reading implies that Jethro would be helpful as a guide in the desert. I have trouble accepting this, as the Israelites were led by God sending a pillar of cloud to direct them through the desert. There must be more to it than that.

The Kli Yakar suggests that the phrase, "encampments," implies more than geographical locations. Every place where the Israelites encamped, they struggled with God. They misbehaved, they complained, they staged minor rebellions. Jethro had proven his worth earlier by urging Moses to revamp the judicial system of the Israelites. He proposed a system of smaller and larger courts, so that no Israelite was too far from justice.

Moses saw that Jethro had unique insight into the social fabric of the children of Israel, and that he might have the key to preventing his episodes of misbehaviors and minor rebellions. "You shall be for us [like] eyes," means you will guide us to be more faithful to our God. The Kli Yakar implies that Jethro remained with the Israelites, agreeing with Moses. The observation I have on that is that it seems to not have worked. Immediately after this section in the book of Numbers, the rebellions begin in earnest, culminating with the sin of the spies and with Korach. It would be easier to say that Jethro left, and that's why everything fell apart.

Perhaps, according to this interpretation, the lesson is that even though the plan was implemented, it failed. Often, we plan everything as best we can to succeed, but success does not come. The big question is, what does one do after the disaster? Give up? Try the plan again? Try a new plan? There is no one proper answer, although I am sure the giving up is the wrong one.

The Oznaim Latorah follows the Seforno who claims that Moses's intention was actually directed outwards, towards the rest of the world. Jethro was a great theologian, who had explored all the other religions before arriving at Judaism. Indeed, he converted. Moses was concerned, however, that should he leave the Israelites, the Gentile world would take that as a sign that he was also rejecting the Israelites Faith. This would constitute a great desecration of God's Name.

Jethro responded to Moses by saying that he intended to convert his people to the Jewish faith, and that's why he wanted to return unto them. This, however, did not alleviate Moses's concerned, but Jethro had a solution for it. His children would remain with Israel, thus no one would doubt that Jethro had indeed embraced the God of Israel and his Torah. He, himself, would then be free to travel amongst the nations of the world and share the Divine message with them. A worthy compromise.

These two interpretations have Moses looking inward and outward, respectively. He looked inward by seeing Jethro as a positive influence on the children of Israel, and he looked outward by seeing Jethro as a role model for the nations of the world. My feeling is that Jethro chose not to remain, but did leave his children with the Israelites, as the Seforno writes. Why, though, did Moses not think of this compromise? Did he not feel that it was important for a Jethro to reach out to humanity?

I am sure he did, but I believe he also was greatly afraid of the potential disintegration of the Jewish people. The Kli Yakar's concern was a valid one. How would Jethro ensure that they improved? By being there and being Jethro. When Moses says, "you shall be for us [like] eyes," I believe he is saying something very powerful. The eyes he refers to are not Jethro's, but the people of Israel's. The literal translation would be then, "You shall be for us, for our eyes [to look upon]." The Israelites will look to you, and realize that this great theologian is watching them. That will make them behave better. If, indeed, Jethro left, Moses's plan was never implemented and never tested. If he remained, then it failed, as we mentioned before.

The Seforno's approach makes another powerful point. I believe that Moses was saying to Jethro that he can still accomplish this goal of converting his people, and, at the same time, make the Israelites better. How?

The answer is Purpose. As long as a person has a Purpose in life, a goal that inspires them, all other things become secondary. I rarely feel hungry on Yom Kippur, because I'm so focused on the prayers and rituals of the day, that my attention and energies are elsewhere. As soon as the day is over, I can think about my stomach, and I realize how much I would love to have that bagel and lox.

Jethro reminds the Israelites of their mission in the world, to spread knowledge of God and adherence to His morality. When the Israelites look at him, they see the whole world looking back at them. They realize that their actions send a message. If they are committed to fixing the world, they will take care to send the right message. A responsible parent will not behave dangerously or foolishly if their children are watching.

But once a mission is no longer ones focus, indulgence in temporary pleasures becomes very tempting. When Jethro left, even if he left his children behind, the immediacy of the mission of Israel became weakened, and they started to slip into materialism. First, they rebelled against the Manna that God provided for them and, instead, craved meat and fish and other foods. Then came their ultimate rejection of mission, in the form of the sin of the spies and the people's refusal to go up into the Promised Land.

Having a life mission is not a luxury, is the only way to ensure that one lives and inspired life of meaning and high ethical standards. Having a Jethro to remind us of this is an important part of having that mission.