Balancing Leadership and Family

The Torah, in this sparsely detailed narrative, manages to awaken us to the enormous personal price Mose and his family played when God appeared to him at the burning bush and appointed him as leader. Even Moshe, the greatest prophet of all time, was not able to balance family and leadership.


In this week’s parsha, Yitro, Moshe’s father in law Yitro reunites Moshe with his wife Zippora and sons Gershom and Eliezer after Moshe sent her away. Where has the family of Moshe been? When we last saw Zippora and at least one son, in Exodus chapter 4, Moses had saddled a donkey and was heading down to Egypt with his family. At that point, an angel of God sought to kill either Moses or the child and Zippora circumcises the child.  That is the last we hear of them until this week’s parsha. The midrash, M’chilta Amalek 3, tries to fill in the narrative. In this literary telling, Moses and Aaron reunite as Moses heads into Egypt, with Moses introducing his family and Aaron protesting. He explains to Moses that there are enough to take out of the pit of slavery without adding a few more. Moses then sends them back to his father in law in Midian. Some commentaries suggest, he even divorces her so that he can clear his head for the enormous task of taking the children of Israel out of Egypt.

In the aftermath of the ten plagues, the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea, Yitro, who hears all that God has done for Moses and for Israel, takes initiative and brings Moses’s family to join the nation while they are camped at the foot of Mt Sinai, presumably on the eve of the giving of the Torah, although commentaries are split as to whether this reunion takes place before or after the Torah has been given since chronology is not the only way that the Bible tells a story.

Moses shows true emotion upon seeing his father in law Yitro (who is called the father in law of Moses 13 times in chapter 18!). He goes out to meet him, bows before him and kisses him. He takes him into the tent and tells him all that happened to the people of Israel.  Yitro then brings sacrifices and sits down to earth a meal before God with Aaron and the elders. And the next morning he rebukes Moses and instructs him to delegate judicial responsibility in order to retain the strength he needs to mediate between God and the people. Moses immediately listens and implements this new plan of action. The chapter ends with a farewell as Yitro, who is also a priest in Midan, returns to his land, reminding us of the departure of Abraham to God’s land, possibly to bring the word of God back to his people in Midian.

The reunion however, is a puzzling one since the Torah does not impart any detail regarding the reconnection of husband and wife, father and sons. While the midrash tries to smooth it over by noting that the Torah is protecting their modesty, it feels contrived and flat.  The medieval commentary Don Isaac Abarbanel criticizes Moshe here. He notes that after the Exodus, Moshe should have actively sought out his wife and sons, assimilating them into the nascent Israelite nation as it began its journey towards Sinai and the Promised Land. Midian is not far from Sinai, reinforcing Moshe’s negligence in not going to see his wife or his father in law, to whom he owed respect and gratitude. Yitro is to be admired for actively taking the responsibility and initiative to repair the rupture in the family dynamic precipitated by Moshe’s absence. Abarbanel suggests that Moshe was reluctant to take any personal time, preferring to attend to the prevalent demands of the people and the constant presence of God’s word. The reunion is a cold one. He does not address his wife and children upon seeing them and the next day, he awakens and immediately goes back to work, seemingly without pause or, consideration for his family. It is not surprising that another medieval commentary, Hizkuni, writes that this story took place after the revelation at Mt. Sinai and for that reason, we never hear of Zippora, Gershom and Eliezer again. If Moshe did not trouble himself to ensure that his wife and children were at Sinai, then it is not surprising that his family has no continuity within the nation.

The Torah, in this sparsely detailed narrative, manages to awaken us to the enormous personal price Mose and his family played when God appeared to him at the burning bush and appointed him as leader. Even Moshe, the greatest prophet of all time, was not able to balance family and leadership, serving perhaps as a cautionary and realistic tale of what such a responsibility entails.