Parashat Yitro: On Leadership and Family

In a Torah portion long understood to be a lesson in leadership, we are led to believe Moses all but ignored those closest to him.

Commentary on Parashat Yitro, Exodus 18:1 - 20:23

Four figures — a man, a woman, and two boys — approach Moses. They haven’t seen their son-in-law, husband, father since he went to Egypt to confront Pharaoh, but they have heard all about what God did for Moses and for Israel. Put yourself in their places. How must they be feeling? Do the two boys even remember their father? Do they worry that he won’t remember them? Are they awed by the stories about their dad? Are they anxious, shy, excited? Do they not know what to expect? 

And Zipporah, Moses’ wife: Has she dressed up so that Moses will be awed at her beauty, as he was when they first met? Is she excited? Is she hesitant? So much time has passed. Will she still know her husband or will they be like strangers meeting for the first time?

The Torah says nothing of any of this. We must fill out the scene, using our imagination to step inside each character’s mind, reading between and behind the lines to their thoughts. All the Torah says is this: “Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent.” (Exodus 18:7)

Consider what this implies. Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, his sons Gershom and Eliezer, and Zippora are all mentioned by name. Yet, Moses greets only his father-in-law, kissing him and taking him into the tent. Moses, it seems, turns his back on the others, leaving them standing there alone. What must that have felt like to his wife and children? How much pain and confusion must they have felt?

Parashat Yitro is often discussed as a Torah portion about leadership. It is a story about giving, and more importantly taking, advice. Yitro teaches Moses to delegate, proposing a model that has been emulated in judicial systems and institutional structuring ever since. Moses demonstrates how to begin to bring together a people around a new vision, as one society committed to shared ideals and values. The portion teaches many lessons about how to implement change and build a nation or organization. 

Why then does it begin with this scene of Moses’ ignored family?

Perhaps it is because we all too often fall into the same leadership trap as Moses. Our lives are so busy and our responsibilities of such importance that we ignore the people we love the most. We are working so many hours that we miss family activities, meals, bedtimes, or weekends. Even if we are physically present, we are often so stressed and exhausted that we’re unable to emotionally connect. And when we are at home together or around the same table, we are still each on our own devices, in our own personal worlds. We place our professional obligations ahead of the needs of our families. We forget to stop and focus on one another. 

Centuries after he stood before Pharaoh and with his people at Mount Sinai, Moses is deliberately sidelined by the rabbis who created the Passover Haggadah. Despite his leadership role, Moses is written out of the Exodus story and the redemption narrative as we recall it at the Passover Seder. Why? One answer is that our sages wanted to ensure that we remember that God performed the miracles of deliverance for our ancestors — not Moses. At Passover, we are to focus on God as the source of our freedom. 

But there may be another reason Moses is left out. More so than any other holiday, we associate Passover and the Seder with family. Since that first Passover celebration in Egypt, when the Israelites were commanded to gather to celebrate their imminent escape from slavery, Passover has been the holiday of family gatherings. Many Jews’ earliest memories include gathering around the Passover table, different generations interacting with each other. 

Perhaps Moses is not at the table with all when we recall the Exodus because when it comes to matters of family, Moses is no role model. At the central Jewish celebration involving family, there is simply no place for Moses and the all-too-familiar leadership paradigm he puts forth in Parashat Yitro. 

Our tradition makes us aware that there were not just immediate consequences for Zipporah, Gershom, and Eliezer in our story. There were long-term consequences for Moses, too. When we ignore our families, they aren’t the only ones hurt. We hurt ourselves, as well. Our rabbis make this point by taking Moses out of the story, giving him no credit in the Passover Haggadah for his leadership. 

Moses’ family life is a challenge to each of us. Can we bridge the tension between our families and our work? Imagine how much more complete Moses would have been as a leader if he had been able to incorporate into his understanding of Israelite society the excitement, fear, shyness, and love his wife and sons were feeling. Imagine if Moses had personally opened up and shared his dreams with them, letting them into his spiritual and emotional life. Wouldn’t they all have been more fulfilled? Wouldn’t his legacy have been even more fully remembered and sustained? 

May we each learn to appreciate and embrace the importance of our family, even as we engage our passions for our work and our leadership. So may it be God’s will — and our own!

Read this Torah portion, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23 on Sefaria

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About the Author: Rabbi Michelle Fisher is the executive director of MIT Hillel. She has also worked as a congregational rabbi on both coasts and served in the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps. Prior to her ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, she earned a master’s degree in Chemistry from MIT.

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