The opening story of this week’s Torah portion gives some important wisdom in dealing with awkward in-law relationships.
Yitro was a very powerful personality. He was a leader, a scholar and a mystic. When Moses became Yitro’s son-in-law, he was a fugitive on the run from Pharaoh’s wrath and had not yet had a G‑dly revelation. Yitro was an idolater and Moses a believer in Monotheism. All of these factors could not have been conducive to a wholesome father/son-in-law relationship.
When in-laws disagree, each side can become entrenched in their own views, unwilling to see the other’s perspective, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the case. Moses and his father-in-law did not see eye to eye on most things; yet it seems that they did not get ensnared in this trap. As soon as Yitro heard about the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea and the wonders that G‑d performed for the children of Israel upon leaving Egypt, he realized that his son in law’s theology was correct and his was faulty. He immediately set out in to the desert to learn from Moses and to find the truth. When he arrived, an extremely warm and respectful encounter ensued: “Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed to him and kissed him, and they asked each other about their welfare and they came into the tent.”
After hearing — first hand — all the miracles that G‑d had performed for the Children of Israel, he did not resent the fact that he had been mistaken and his son-in-law’s theology had been proved right. On the contrary, “Yitro rejoiced because of all the goodness which the L-rd had done to Israel.” He made a dramatic U-turn — denouncing idol worship with the words, “Now I know that the L-rd is greater then all gods.”
The very next day, in true father-in-law style, Yitro criticized Moses’ leadership and give him unsolicited advice. Many family feuds have started because an in-law gave unasked-for advice and criticism. Moses was unperturbed. In fact, he was grateful for the sensible advice and implemented it right away.
How was it that these two strong personalities were able to have such a wonderful relationship and show each other such respect and admiration? The answer lies in the fact that they were humble. This does not mean that they did not realize their greatness — they did. It means that they knew that there were things beyond themselves — a greater truth that needed to be grasped and understood. Moses and Yitro were both searchers of truth. Yitro felt that he had found truth with idolatry, but being a quintessential truth seeker, once he saw the errors of his ways he was more than willing to change.
Moses was no different. When Yitro pointed out to him that as the solitary judge of his people he was not serving the people efficiently, he was grateful for the advice and immediately made the necessary improvements. Neither cared from where or from whom the truth came — the fact that it was the truth was all that mattered.
Ego and personal animosity will never sour the relationship of people who sincerely seek the truth, because theirs is a relationship that is based on values that transcend the self.
By Levi Brackman
Rabbi Levi I. Brackman is director of Judaism in the Foothills and the author of numerous articles on issues of the day.
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