In-Laws and Out-Laws

YITRO EXODUS 18:1 - 20:23
3 FEBRUARY 2018 / 18 SHEVAT 5778

Parsha Summary

Jethro, Moses' father-in-law suggests a system for establishing lower courts to settle disputes; God speaks the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel amidst fire, smoke, and the sound of the shofar.


In the first years when my wife, Liddy, and I were doing life together, marriage was not yet equal. Throughout those years, I lovingly thought of her family as my out-laws. Our first oh-wow-that-was-a. . .date was a hike in the woods and a long conversation about parshat Noah by a creek, including an intimate discussion about honoring parents from her perspective as a mother and both of our perspectives as daughters. Throughout dating, one of our top priorities was supporting each other in honoring our respective parents.

What the well-organized and extraordinarily effective “Love is Love” campaign won for us was not, of course, our right to love one another, but our right to enter into a legal relationship. Marriage makes in-laws of our out-laws. Now not only are we obligated to honor our own parents, we get to think about what it means to honor each other’s parents.

In this week’s parsha one of the intimate relationships at the center of the story is between Moses and Yitro: Moses’s father-in-law, the man for whom this parsha is named.

Yitro brought Moses’s wife and sons, Gershom and Eliezar, to the base of the mountain where the people of Israel were encamped. (Exodus 18:6) In a scene as loving and touching and familial as any between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, when they arrived, Moses went out to greet his father-in-law, bowed low, and kissed him.

Just listen to what happens next: “each asked after the other’s welfare” (Exodus 18:8) and they went into the tent.

Each asked after the other. The moment is tender and sweet.

Having not seen his wife and children throughout the ordeals of the plagues and liberation from Egypt, the emphasis here is not on them. I choose to know that Moses had loving words for his wife, that his children ran to him and threw their arms around him exclaiming, “Abba!” as they were enfolded in a Moses-sized bear hug. I can feel the sand-softened fabric of his robes on their faces. As a child, Moses experienced the deep love of both of his mothers in his open adoption, and of his protective older sister. He saw people. He saw their needs; and their longing. I believe he would have seen his sons . . . and his wife. I think the “they” in “they went into the tent” means all of them: Moses, Yitro, Zipporah, Gershom, and Eliezar.

But these other relationships are not the focus of the Torah’s lens.

In the moments before we receive the Ten Commandments at Sinai, the relationship to which we bear witness is the one between Moses and his leader-of-a-people Midianite priest father-in-law. The Torah tells us directly that these men asked about each other’s welfare before Moses recounted to Yitro everything that God had done for us in Egypt, all of our hardships, and how God had delivered us. (Exodus 18:9)

And Yitro . . . rejoiced.

Can you picture him? I can. He’s leaning back on the dusty cushions and clapping his big hands together. His eyes sparkle, and there are deep laugh lines around them. “And then the sea did . . . what, exactly?” The Torah says he exclaimed over all the kindness God had shown Israel. And he, a Midianite priest, offered a prayer to the God of Israel, “Blessed be Adonai who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh.” (Exodus 18:11)

Over the next days, Yitro watched as Moses led the people. He cautioned Moses that presiding alone and having people come to him, and only him, all day and all evening to resolve disputes was not sustainable. Yitro advised him to set up a tiered system of lower courts so only the most complicated issues would come to Moses. Moses did as his father-in-law counseled, and soon after we received the 10 Commandments.

On the one hand, the 5th Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother that you may long endure on the land which Adonai, your God, is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12) says nothing directly of the expansion of family in marriage. On the other, כַּבֵּ֥ד/kabeid it says, so soon after we witness Moses with his father-in-law. Honor it says, just a few verses after Yitro praises God and son-in-law Moses accepts his counsel.

This word: Kabeid.

When God tells Moses his mission at the burning bush, Moses objects that he cannot speak because his tongue is kh’vad – heavy or slow - from the same root as kabeid. (Exodus/Shemot 4:10) When Pharaoh increased the workload, he said, “Tikh’bad (תִּכְבַּד)  – make heavier – the work, upon the men.” (Exodus/Shemot 5:9) Pharaoh’s “heart” or thinking was hardened six times, and made heavy (hakh’beid, הַכְבֵּד) five times. Four of the plagues are also described as kaveid - heavy and oppressive.

The root itself isn’t negative, though. When we escaped from Egypt, the property we took with us was also kaveid (כָּבֵד) – magnificently weighty. (Exodus/Shemot 12:37-38) As newly-freed slaves we left with livestock, gold, and silver. When God said the army would be in pursuit it was so that “ikav’dah”  (Exodus 14:4, 14:17-18) so that God would be recognized as impressive and important.

And what is the opposite of to honor? Perhaps to curse? Kalel. Literally, to make light of.

The 5th commandment, in which you is singular and kabeid is imperative, “You shall treat with weight and import” (Exodus 20:12) is in the context of Moses’s relationship with Yitro. The Talmud Ketubot 103a states that the 5th Commandment applies not only to the people who physically created us, but also to step-parents and older siblings – and by extension, adoptive parents. Rambam (12th-century Rabbi Moses Maimonides) taught that we must treat those who care for us as parent’s do with the honor of a student for a teacher, expanding the honor of one’s teacher to one’s parental figures and of one’s parental figures to a teacher.

Some of us may be blessed with family-in-law relationships as strong as we witness in that of Moses and Yitro. Some of us may not be. We can all look to them aspirationally, and lean on the Talmud for support. Kiddushin 31b explains that we adult children honor our parents and thus our parents-in-laws by making sure they have food, drink, clothing, shelter, and needed assistance. Rambam added in his Mishneh Torah, that if an adult child’s parents live in poverty and we are able to take care of them, we must do so. He also wrote that if an adult child cannot bear the stress of the care of a parent, the child may hire someone else to do it.

It seems ours are not the first generations to struggle with this commandment, or to wonder about its limits. Still, in our relationships with our parents and our in-laws, and as our children, and step-children, and students grow and partner and choose to do life with someone – maybe get married – we can hold onto the verses in this parsha when Moses and Yitro ask after one another’s welfare, celebrate together, listen to one another . . . and we can do our best to build relationships of magnificent weight.

Amy ArielComment