In this week’s Torah reading (Beha’lotecha, Numbers 8:1-12:16), Moses implores Jethro, his father-in-law (referred to here as “Hobab, the son of Reuel the Midianite”), to join him and the Israelites in their trek through the wilderness to the Promised Land: “And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law: ‘We are journeying unto the place of which the Lord said: I will give it you; come thou with us, and we will do thee good; for the Lord hath spoken good concerning Israel’” (Num. 10:29).
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Although Jethro refuses Moses’ invitation – “And he said unto him: ‘I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred’” (Num. 10:30) – the leader persists: “And he said: ‘Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou shalt be to us instead of eyes. And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what good soever the Lord shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee’” (Num. 10:31-32).
Jethro’s answer to this entreaty is not given, however, it is apparent here that Moses does not trust the Pillar of Cloud – which will soon be revealed to him and Israel – to guide him and his nation to Canaan, and therefore seeks a guide: Jethro.
The midrashic work Sifre provides a number of homilies to explain the words, “and thou shalt be to us instead of eyes”: “Moses is saying to Jethro: Is it not enough for you that you will sit with us in the Sanhedrin and be our guide in the ways of the Torah? … Another possible meaning: Moses is saying to Jethro: Even if you do not want to be one of our judges, at least serve us a guiding light for those things which we do not understand, as it is written, ‘Moreover thou shalt provide [out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain]’” (Exodus 18:21).
“And yet, one may ask, did not Moses have people to help him from the time God gave Israel the Torah at Mount Sinai? For it is written, ‘and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure’ [Exod. 18:23]. If so, why have certain things become incomprehensible to Moses? So that a righteous person would be dependent upon another righteous person, so that Moses would be dependent on Jethro for guidance” (Sifre, Numbers, section 80).
Moses needs Jethro to interpret God’s laws for him and proposes that he serve as someone who will remind him of those that have been forgotten. Moses refers to Jethro’s proposal that Moses appoint “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain” (Exod. 18:21) in order to make the job of judging Israel easier. Jethro says, “If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people also shall go to their place in peace” (Exod. 18:23).
In other words, Jethro is simply passing on God’s words – but God wants him to be the medium for conveying the commandments so that a righteous person, Moses, will be dependent upon another righteous person, Jethro. Moses offers Jethro the role of intellectual, judicial mentor and authority in Israel.
This suggestion is closely connected to the sages’ description of Jethro’s descendants. For example, those descendants, the Kenites, are referred to as “the families of scribes that dwelt at Jabez” (1 Chronicles 2:55) and are also called the children of Rechab – a reference to Jonadab, the son of Rechab, one of the Kenites’ ancestors, who commands them to refrain from drinking wine, building houses, sowing seeds in the field or planting trees. Their reward will be “that ye may live many days in the land wherein ye sojourn” (Jeremiah 35:7).
The sages interpret his prohibition concerning the construction of houses to be a praxis for mourning the Temple in Jerusalem that will be destroyed: “Since this house [the Temple] will be in ruins at some later date, they regarded it as if it had already been destroyed, thus the prohibition, ‘neither shall ye build house’ [Jer. 35:7].”
Their reward, as noted in Sifre, is that God ordained that their descendants would include great scribes, who would learn Torah from a legendary teacher referred to as Jabez. The latter, explain the sages, was a gifted Talmudist and a God-fearing individual who prayed he would have students to whom he could teach Torah. According to Sifre, Jethro’s descendants, the Kenites, abandoned their city and went off to study Torah with Jabez: “They lacked a teacher and he lacked students” (Sifre, Numbers, section 78).
Because of the righteousness of the children of Rechab and the fact that they obeyed the commandment of their ancestor, Jonadab – Jeremiah blesses them: “And unto the house of the Rechabites Jeremiah said: Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Because ye have hearkened to the commandment of Jonadab your father, and kept all his precepts, and done according unto all that he commanded you; therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: There shall not be cut off unto Jonadab the son of Rechab a man to stand before me forever’” (Jer. 35:18-19).
The sages interpret the phrase “to stand before me” as a reference to service in the Temple, and to acting as judges in the Sanhedrin, which held its sessions in the Chamber of Hewed Stone nearby. According to another, more radical, opinion that also appears in Sifre, the daughters of the Rechabites became the wives of priests serving in the Temple and their descendants offered sacrifices on its altar.
The sages see Jethro’s descendants as members of an ascetic group that is not an integral part of Israel, but which has a tradition of mourning the destruction of the Temple. Because of their righteousness and obedience to their authoritative ancestor Jonadab, they are privileged to serve in the Temple and be judges in the Sanhedrin. The midrash in Sifre “seeks comfort” in the tale of the Rechabites: “Since they sacrificed themselves, God drew them near to him; it thus stands to reason that this should all the more so be the case for Israel, who fulfill the Torah’s commandments.”
In a well-known legend described in Tractate Menachot in the Babylonian Talmud, Moses sits in a classroom where Rabbi Akiva is teaching. Moses cannot understand anything and asks why God has given him, rather than Rabbi Akiva (whose greatness in Torah and in its interpretation Moses humbly acknowledges), the privilege of being the medium for delivering the Torah to Israel.
Just as Moses needs someone – that is, Jethro – to interpret God’s words, the sages, basing themselves on the dialogue between the two, recognize it as a hypothetical and de-facto authorization of their own interpretive activity. Moses’ pleading with Jethro to remain as his guide is seen by the sages as the basic need for a guide in the ways of the Torah. In the case of Jethro, this guide’s descendants, who convert to Judaism, become a part of the Sanhedrin and are even privileged to sit in the great Chamber of Hewn Stone.