January 23, 2003
The Parent Trap
Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
What makes a good parent? Once, while waiting on line at Passport Control in Israel, I overheard two American couples talking.
Each was describing how much luggage they had brought. Finally, one said to the other, "We brought nothing for ourselves. The truth is we could have done just fine with a carry-on case. All our oversized bags are filled with items for our children and grandchildren. We took orders for whatever they wanted and shlepped it here." Then she added the ultimate Jewish thing. "Isn't that what parents are supposed to do?"
The other couple, nodding in agreement, replied, "Yes, and may you do so for 120 years."
Suddenly from all over the hall came, "Amen!"
It was heartening to know that Jewish parenting is doing well. But to be honest, it takes more than shlepping luggage to Israel to determine what really makes Jewish parenting good. In fact, one look at Parshat Yitro will indicate how tremendously complex the problem actually is.
At the beginning of the Torah portion we learn how Yitro arrived at the Jewish camp in the Sinai before Revelation in order to reunite Moses with his family. Throughout the entire period of time during which the Jews had escaped from Egypt and marched toward the Sinai Mountain, Zipporah, the wife of Moses, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, were separated from him. Moses had left them in Midian with his father-in-law, Yitro. But now that the Jews were free from bondage and safe in their desert camp, Yitro brought husband, wife and children together again.
Just imagine the moment. It must have been a beautiful reunion with great emotion on all sides. Moses had led the Jews out of Egypt, and now he had to catch up with his family on all that had since transpired.
But oddly enough, that is not the scene the Torah describes. If one reads the verses carefully, one will be amazed at the awkward situation depicted in the text:
"Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, took Zipporah, the wife of Moses, after she had been sent away; and her two sons: of whom the name of one was Gershom, for he had said, 'I was a sojourner in a strange land'; and the name of the other was Eliezer, 'for the God of my father came to my aid, and He saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.' Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, came to Moses with his sons and wife, to the Wilderness where he was encamped, by the Mountain of God" (Exodus 18:2-5).
A contemporary scholar in Jerusalem, Rabbi Eliyahu Schlesinger, exclaims that this passage is absolutely amazing. The Torah here provides totally superfluous information. We already were told the names of the sons of Moses when they were born, and in that early text we also learned the explanation of their names. Why, he wonders, does the Torah now bother to repeat both the names and their explanations?
To resolve this dilemma, Schlesinger notes that in this passage it is Yitro who is speaking, and he is speaking directly to Moses. As he reunited Moses with his family on the eve of Revelation, Yitro realized that Moses soon would become totally preoccupied with the community. Now, even more than before, Moses was not going to have much time for his family. His children were going to suffer from this unavoidable lack of a father. Yet, Yitro wanted Moses to realize that he still had a responsibility to them. He wanted Moses never to forget that he had given his sons their names when they were born, and he wanted Moses to remember that each child was a unique person with a destiny as unique as his name.
Schlesinger suggests that each one of us faces this very same challenge. Each performs a juggling act in life. Most of us define ourselves by our work. Business, profession, even communal leadership becomes all-absorbing. We have no time for our spouses or our children. But each of us, like Moses, needs to be reminded that our ultimate responsibility, above and beyond all else, is to our families. Then, like Moses, our Jewish parental role will remain vital for 120 years and we all will be able to answer, "Amen." Â