Parshat Behaalotcha (Numbers 8:1 – 12:16)
Rabbi David Stav
The Jewish People had encamped adjacent to Mount Sinai, and is now beginning its march toward the Promised Land. But before heading out, Moses turns to his father-in-law, Yitro, and proposes that he join them for the journey. Yitro responds: “We are traveling to the place about which God has said, ‘I will give it to you’. Come with us and we will be good to you, for the Lord has spoken of good fortune for Israel.”
Moses’ choice of action prompts a great many questions. After all, God has already spoken of the good that awaits the nation of Israel, promising them a land filled with blessings, so why would Moses offer someone else a role as a partner? He knew that the land would be partitioned into tribal lots. Did he believe there would be any room to accommodate Yitro and his family?
To ensure that Yitro does not feel uneasy in Israel’s midst, Moses subsequently doubles down on his offer, stating that “… if you go with us, we will bestow on you the good that God grants us.” In other words, he would be given full and equal rights. Who gave Moses the authority to promise something like that? Would Yitro truly enjoy all the rights the Jewish people would enjoy? Was the land not promised solely to the descendants of Jacob?
This question becomes even more pointed as we recall how Moses parted from Yitro upon reaching Mount Sinai, after having left Egypt. The Torah relates that Yitro saw that Moses was running the nation’s judicial system on his own, and warns him that if he did not delegate powers and appoint “officers of the thousands” and “officers of the hundreds”, and only deal directly with particularly complex issues, he may collapse.
Moses adopts his father-in-law’s proposal, only to try to rid himself of Yitro later on: “And Moses dispatched his father-in-law, and he went to his land.” What happened to Moses? What made him decide to change his mind and crave his father-in-law’s company?
Perhaps the most important question emerging from this story is why it is told in the first place. The Torah, which carefully selects the words it uses and contains no redundancies, chooses to tell us the story of how Yitro joins the Jewish people. But why?
What does it contribute to the larger picture, and why does it end on such an ambiguous note? Various commentators grappled to understand whether Moses had meant to give Yitro an inheritance in the land, whether material goods in the form of gold or silver, or perhaps spiritual assets.
A simple reading of the verses would suggest that Moses was promising him all the good things the nation of Israel would receive, including land. While examining one of the translations of the Torah, I found the following sentence, which suggests another interpretation of “God spoke well of Israel”: “Because God spoke as to alleviate the status of the convert within Israel”.
In other words, according to this commentator’s understanding, the source of Moses’ authority, which allowed him to say what he did, was the Divine commandment of treating converts with respect, which is meaningless unless we give converts the same rights the rest of the people of Israel enjoy.
The previous two Torah portions describe the tribes that comprised the Israelite camp and their pedigrees throughout the generations. The camp sets out in a fixed structure, and it will shortly enter the Land of Israel to receive its inheritance. The nation may find itself within a hemmed-in permanent structure that precludes others from joining.
After entering the land, Moses teaches us that being Jacob’s descendants should not prevent those who want to join us from doing so, assuming they are truly prepared to accept the set of values that guide our lives. Under no circumstances should Israel be a place for a closed society bent on keeping others out.
We could try to understand this story on a deeper level. Yitro appears twice in the Torah – first, as an outsider who comes to teach us that although we received the Torah from Heaven, we need to use common sense when implementing its teachings. Yitro’s vantage point manages to enhance Israel’s judicial system and induce Moses to delegate the judicial powers that were once entirely in his hands.
Before entering the Land of Israel, we must re-encounter Yitro. This time, he is the one who makes us take another deeper look at ourselves, and thanks to his presence, we are not just talking to ourselves. The fact that God wants us to be gracious to converts emphasizes how important it is to have them among us – how important it is for us, not just for them.
Moses even uses the phrase “and you shall be our eyes”. One could justifiably ask if our prophets and the urim and tumim weren’t enough. Why did we need Yitro’s eyes as well? The Torah’s answer is straightforward: true converts contribute a humane perspective coming from the outside to a historical nation of Israel. This refreshing view did not simmer in the stew of traditional Judaism for eons. Rather, it is a vital component of our successful existence as a society. This is the challenge that awaits the nation as it enters the promised land, and it remains a challenge to us until this very day.