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Parshas Yisro – Proper Parenting

By: Rav Dov Lipman

In the beginning of this week’s parsha, the Torah states that Yisro came to join Moshe and the Jewish people.  The Torah relates:

“And Yisro, the father in law of Moshe, took Tzipora, the wife of Moshe, after she had been sent.  And her two sons of which the name of one was Gershom, because he said ‘I was a stranger in a strange land.’  And the name of the other, Eliezer, For the G-d of my father is my help and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.”     (18:2-4)

There are many questions to be asked regarding this passage.  First of all, the reason for Gershom’s name was already mentioned at the time of his birth in Parshas Shemos (2:22).  Why does the Torah repeat it here?  Second, why wasn’t the birth of his brother, Eliezer, ever recorded by the Torah with him suddenly mentioned in this story?  Third, why does the Torah refer to the boys as “her sons” and not as the sons of Moshe? 

We begin by emphasizing a crucial perspective that we must maintain while studying Chumash.  Since the Torah is not a history book, births are only described because of something important relating to that birth – for example, the impact the newborn will have, the impact the birth has on those involved in an already meaningful story, or because of the significance of the name of the child’s  name.  

With this point in mind, let us explore a brief chronological description of the times when Moshe’s sons are mentioned in the Written and Oral Torah. 

1)The birth of Gershom, Moshe’s older son, is described in Shemos 2:22 and includes the reason for the name Gershom: “…Because I was a stranger (‘Ger’) in a foreign land.”  

2) Midrash Rabbah on Shemos 4:18 describes Moshe’s encounter with Yisro when, after the scene at the burning bush, he decides to return to Egypt:

“Yisro said to him, ‘Where are you taking them?’  Moshe replied, ‘To Egypt.’  Yisro said to him, ‘Those that are already in Egypt seek to leave and you are taking them there?’ Moshe replied, ‘In the future, they are due to leave and stand at Mount Sinai to hear from the mouth of G-d – I am the Lord your G-d – and my sons will not hear this with the others?’  Immediately, Yisro said to Moshe, ‘Go in peace.’”

3)Moshe’s life is in danger on the road to Egypt because of his failure to circumcise his son.  (Shemos 4:24-26) There is some debate whether this son was Gershom or Eliezer.  According to the Ramban, Eliezer was either born right before this episode or Tziporah was pregnant with him at the time  - thus, explaining his name as described in this week’s Parsha since this is the time when Moshe discovers that his life was no longer in danger and G-d has “…delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.”   Either way, the Torah makes no mention of Eliezer’s birth.  Tziporah immediately circumcises the son.  

4)The Mechilta (quoted by Rashi in our Parsha, 18:3) describes Moshe and Aharon’s meeting upon Moshe’s return to Egypt:

“When G-d said to him in Midian ‘Go, return to Egypt,’ then Moshe took his wife and sons…and Aharon went and they met at the Mountain of G-d (Har Sinai).  Aharon said, ‘Who are these?’  Moshe replied, ‘This is my wife who I married in Midian and these are my sons.’  Aharon said to him, ‘And where are you taking them?’  Moshe replied, ‘To Egypt.’  Aharon said, ‘We feel sorrow for the earlier ones and you want to add to their number?’  Moshe then said to Tziporah, ‘Go to your father’s house.’  She took her two sons and returned.” 

5)Yisro brings Tziporah and the boys to Moshe in the desert in this week’s Parsha.

6) Rashi on Bamidbar 11:27 quotes an opinion in the Midrash that Gershom was the “young man” who ran to inform Moshe that Eldad and Meidad were prophesizing in the Jewish camp.

7) In Parshas Pinchas, Moshe says to Hashem:

“Let the Lord…set a man over the congregation…that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd.”    (Bamidbar 27:17-18)

Rashi quotes the Midrash that Moshe had his own sons in mind when seeking a successor but G-d rejected this request saying:

“Your sons sat around and did not engage in Torah.”  (Bamidbar Rabba 21:14)

8) The Gemara in Bava Basra (109b) identifies Yehonatan ben Gershom ben Menashe, the priest for the idol of Micha (see Sefer Shoftim Chapter 17 and 18:30), as the grandson of Moshe Rabbeinu.  Menashe in Hebrew letters is Moshe with an extra “nun” thereby masking his true relationship to this idolater.

As we can see from the quotes above, the last time Moshe’s sons are mentioned explicitly in the Written Torah is in this week’s Parsha when Yisro brings them as young children to the Jewish camp.  The sources or lack of sources indicate that they did not achieve any level of greatness in terms of contributing to Klal Yisrael with the exception of one opinion in the Midrash about just one episode with Eldad and Meidad.  In fact, the information we have about how they ultimately turned out is quite negative.  We are now faced with a glaring fourth question: How can it be that neither of the sons of Moshe Rabbeinu, himself,  did not mature into Jews of the highest caliber, prepared to accept the mantle of leadership from their father?   

Putting that fourth question aside for the moment, we have shown that Moshe’s sons played no role in our development as a people and their accomplishments and experiences contain no eternal message for the Jewish people.  Thus, there was no need for their births to be recorded in the Torah.  We can, therefore suggest, that Gershom’s birth is highlighted in Shemos 2:22 because the reason for his name teaches us an important lesson.  Moshe Rabbeinu was able to maintain his spiritual level in Midian and embark on his mission to redeem the Jewish people because he maintained the perspective that he was a “stranger in a foreign land” as captured by Gershom’s name.  In fact, the Chofetz Chayim teaches that Moshe’s goal in naming his son Gershom was to remind his family that they were foreigners and they should not be influenced by the pagan world which surrounded them.  However, there was no reason for the Torah to mention the birth of Eliezer since there was no eternal message in his birth or in his naming.

Why, then, are both boys and the reasons for their names mentioned in this week’s Parsha upon their arrival in the Jewish camp with Yisro?      

Rav Hirsch explains that the names of the sons, because of their meanings, capture the fact that Moshe was not quiet in Midian about his past and his connection to the enslaved nation in Egypt.  Thus, the names relay the motivation behind Yisro’s conveying the family at this moment in time – their connection to this nation.  That is why the Torah now mentions the names and their significance, thereby answering our first two questions.

Let us now analyze the relationship between Moshe Rabbeinu and his sons.  As described by the first Midrash quoted above, Moshe wanted his sons to be part of the Jewish people and to experience the greatness of the desert experience.  However, something changed between that encounter with Yisro and his meeting Aharon where he was persuaded to send his family back to Midian?  What transpired in the interim?

The answer is clear from the events listed above.  Moshe almost lost his life because of his failure to circumcise his son.  Why didn’t Moshe circumcise his son?  The Ramban (4:20) explains that Moshe was in a hurry to fulfill the command of Hashem to return to Egypt to redeem the Jewish people.  Moshe was so focused on the pressing needs of the nation per G-d’s command that he neglected a most basic personal mitzvah.  Perhaps this story, where his own life was in danger for his failure to be a proper Jewish father, convinced Moshe that he could not be both the redeemer, teacher, and leader of the Jewish people and a proper Jewish father to his sons.  Aharon’s protest was enough to push Moshe to put those feelings into action. Thus, he relinquished his role as father, as was already symbolically captured by Tziporah performing the fatherly role of circumcision, and he agrees to send her back to Midian where she would care for the boys.

This explains why the Torah calls Gershom and Eliezer “her sons” and not “the son’s of Moshe.”  Moshe, chosen by G-d to lead the Jewish people at this critical stage, was “forced” into giving up his role as a father and thus, they became Tzipora’s children and her children alone.  This is alluded to in the teaching in the Zohar (2:69b) that the words “her sons” connote that “she had educated them without Moshe.”  Thus, we have answered our third question. 

This can also explain why the Torah emphasizes that despite the fact that his wife and children were arriving after a separation of close to a year, “Moshe went out to greet his father in law.” (18:7)  Having his wife and sons return was not his plan since he recognized that he could not care for them in the proper way.

The idea that Moshe could not fulfill his responsibilities as a father is supported by verses in the Torah, itself.  The third chapter of Bamidbar begins with the words, “And these are the offspring of Aharon and Moshe…These are the names of the sons of Aharon…”  Moshe’s sons are not listed there at all.  This could allude to the concept  that while they were Moshe’s biological sons, he could not raise them because of his obligations to Klal Yisrael.  Thus, they were not “his” sons.

This is, in no way, meant to be an indictment against Moshe Rabbeinu.  He was “the most humble of all men” who was chosen by Hashem, despite his protests, to be the leader of the Jewish people at this most critical time in our history.  It was a full time job in every sense of the word.  The people were dependent on their leader and his availability during that period in a way which was not duplicated at any other time in our history.  Moshe still loved his sons and desired the best for them as we see in his hope that they would succeed him as leaders of the Jewish people.  Even when his descendants succumbed to idol worship in the story of Micha, the Navi masks Moshe’s name by calling him “Menashe” since Moshe’s failings were not to blame for how his offspring turned out.  He had no choice in the matter.

Nevertheless, Moshe’s forced absence from being an active father ultimately had tragic effects on his sons – thus, answering our fourth question.  Not only did they did fail to “engage in Torah study” as stated in the Midrash quoted above, but Gershom’s son, Moshe’s grandson, became a priest for idol worship.  While I again emphasize that we do not condemn Moshe Rabbeinu for his decision or criticize him, there is a powerful lesson for us to absorb from this sad outcome. 

Throughout our lives we are faced with decisions to make about professional opportunities, community responsibilities and other challenges or experiences.  We must never lose sight of the ramifications these decisions can have on our children and their need for their parents to always be a regular part of their lives in a meaningful way.  We should never underestimate the impact that a lack of attention and focus can have on our children.  Moshe Rabbeinu’s children turned out to be so irrelevant that  their births did not warrant being mentioned in the Torah as an event onto itself.  True, none of us is faced with Moshe Rabbeinu’s unique circumstance, but we can learn from his saga that we must have the foresight and wisdom to be involved parents. We must keep our priorities straight and maintain strong links with our children.

May we, thus, be blessed to raise children whose births would be worthy of mention in the Torah as a significant event in the history and legacy of our nation