Parshat Yitro: The Limits of Giving

Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, is one of the most positive characters in the Torah. In the portion which bears his name, we see that even Moshe has something to learn from him.

The portion begins with a joyous family reunion. Yitro reunites Moshe with his wife and his children, Yitro’s daughter and grandsons, and the Torah tells of the excitement of the moment: kisses and catching up, and even Moshe’s bowing to Yitro.

But the next day is business as usual for Moshe. He sits as judge for the nation from morning until night. Yitro sees the immensity of the burden upon Moshe and suspects he will collapse under the weight. He knows his son-in-law well and therefore makes a personal appeal. In his words, “what you are doing is not good. It will cause you to whither – both you and this nation – for it is too much for you to undertake alone.” (Exodus 18:17-18) Yitro suggests a system to divide the burden of judging the people amongst others who are worthy of the task. Moshe accepts his father-in-law’s suggestion, and thus Bnei Yisrael’s first justice system is established.

The Price of Dedication

As we have seen in previous portions, Moshe’s dedication to pursuing justice and his intolerance of injustice can cost him dearly. Yitro is attempting to establish a limit to the degree to which Moshe can give, because giving without limits is destructive to the giver and the receiver alike. It is noteworthy that it is Yitro, who enters from outside the story, who notices the problem with Moshe’s approach.

Perhaps thanks to the distance he had and the perspective it afforded, he was able to see what others were not. Alternatively, perhaps it was only because of his closeness with Moshe that he was able to see his fallibility and to recognize that even his great strength was not without limit. And of course, he had a personal interest at stake. Yitro is concerned for the welfare of his daughter and her children whom he has just returned to Moshe. As their father and grandfather, he wants to ensure that his son-in-law will have some time for his family and that the burden of his leadership will not be too much for them to bear. It is not by coincidence that the man who taught me the principle, “How long is a groom considered a king? For as long as he treats his wife as a queen,” was my wife’s father.

Help yourself and help othersWe are all familiar with the airline safety instructions that the flight attendants recite before take-off: “In the event of a sudden drop in cabin pressure, air masks will descend from the ceiling. Make sure your own mask is securely in place before helping other passengers with theirs.” This simple instruction contains within it a deep spiritual truth – you can’t help others if you neglect yourself. First you must have a steady flow of oxygen, then look around and see whom you can help.

Giving without limits has a price, and frequently it is paid by the giver’s immediate family. In her book My Grandfather’s Blessings, Rachel Ramen tells a story of a man who recovered from cancer, and resolved thereafter to dedicate his life to environmentalism, a cause which had always been dear to his heart. But alas, his dedication to the greater good became so absolute it brought about the dissolution of his own family, and his wife and children left him.

I once heard a son of a well-known man bitterly allude to the personal price he paid for his father’s dedication to the public, citing the midrash about Moshe’s grandson who became a priest of Avodah Zarah (Rashi on Shoftim 17:6). The Torah gives us no record of Moshe’s relationship with his sons, except for one, and it is an instance of neglect. Moshe is on his way to Egypt to free the people of Israel, but it seems that in his dedication to his task he neglected his fatherly duty to circumcise his own son, and in so doing, endangered his life. In the end, it is Tzipora, who was not even born into the people of Israel, who saved the family by circumcising her son.

I will conclude with an anecdote on this note: On the night of the holiday of Shavuot, one of the Rabbis in the yeshiva where I teach was scheduled to give a class in the Beit Midrash. Because the festive meal went on for some time, the class started quite late. Only a few minutes after he began, his youngest son entered the Beit Midrash, in order to learn with his father. The Rabbi apologized before the large audience, “it true that there are many of you and only one of him, but for him – I am a father,” and so saying he stopped the class and sat to learn with his son.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir.

Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen
Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.

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