Careless Communication and Social Dysfunction: Understanding Yitro's Departure
The book of Bemidbar chronicles the difficulties of freedom, the always-looming hangover of redemption’s intoxicating inauguration. Miriam and Aharon grumble about Moshe’s wife and power; the people rebel, demanding meat; Moshe starts to crack under the burdens of leadership, begging for help; the scouts stir up the masses to insist that entering the land is impossible; remorseful zealots, regretful at God’s decree that they won’t possess the land, try to conquer it without God’s sanction, and get routed; a brazen stick-gatherer publicly flaunts Shabbat violation; Korach, Datan, and Aviram join forces to stage an uprising against Moshe and Aharon; Moshe loses his grip, reacting aggressively to the people’s panicked cries for water; the masses succumb to temptation to a pagan orgy at Ba‘al Pe‘or.
This theme of breakdown of the social order stands in stark contrast to the beginning chapters of the book, which can read as almost mind-numbingly banal, if such a thing can be said, in their perfectly structured, utopian ordering of the camp and its leadership structure. So, how did we get from point A to point B, from perfect structure to chaos? Literarily, the turning point is the Israelites’ departure from their resting place near Sinai to march toward Canaan, so it is worthwhile paying close attention to what transpired in that transition. Crucially, the Israelites’ departure is framed by the personal parting of ways of Moshe’s father-in-law, Hovav (aka Yitro), from the Israelites, suggesting that it was his absence or the process of his departure that led to communal breakdown. What’s more, the depiction of this parting of ways is itself marked by halting, unclear communication and lack of closure, as if to suggest that it was communication failure itself that made the parting of ways, and the consequential breakdown, fait accompli.
Numbers, Chapter 10
(כט) וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לְחֹבָב בֶּן רְעוּאֵל הַמִּדְיָנִי חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה נֹסְעִים אֲנַחְנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר יְקֹוָק אֹתוֹ אֶתֵּן לָכֶם לְכָה אִתָּנוּ וְהֵטַבְנוּ לָךְ כִּי יְקֹוָק דִּבֶּר טוֹב עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל:
(ל) וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו לֹא אֵלֵךְ כִּי אִם אֶל אַרְצִי וְאֶל מוֹלַדְתִּי אֵלֵךְ:
(לא) וַיֹּאמֶר אַל נָא תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָנוּ כִּי עַל כֵּן יָדַעְתָּ חֲנֹתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וְהָיִיתָ לָּנוּ לְעֵינָיִם:
(לב) וְהָיָה כִּי תֵלֵךְ עִמָּנוּ וְהָיָה הַטּוֹב הַהוּא אֲשֶׁר יֵיטִיב יְקֹוָק עִמָּנוּ וְהֵטַבְנוּ לָךְ:
(29) Moshe said to Hovav ben Re’uel the Midianite, Moshe’s father-in-law, “We are traveling to the place which YHWH said, ‘I will give it to you’; go with us and we’ll do well by you, for YHWH has spoken to do well for Israel.”
(30) And he said to him, “I’m not going, but will go back to my land, my birthplace.”
(31) And he said, “Please do not leave us now; it’s for this that you know how we can camp in the desert and can be for us as eyes. (32) And if you walk with us, that goodness that YHWH will do well for us will come about and we will do well by you.'”
And then they travel on and Hovav/Yitro is gone. No response. That’s it.
What was happening in this halting exchange of words? What kind of conversation was this? If we were theater directors, how would we stage it?
Moshe’s first offer is noteworthy both for what it does say and what it doesn’t say. “We’ll do well by you”: essentially, Moshe is offering Yitro a good retirement package. This may have primarily financial undertones, as they have been promised to inherit a lush land flowing with milk and honey, in whose bounty Yitro may have yearned to take part, but worried that the tribal land allotment would leave no room for a non-Israelite such as himself, so Moshe promises that he will be taken care of. It might also have undertones of physical security, which the Israelites are promised in the land, or of spiritual life and inclusion in YHWH’s covenantal embrace. It does not in any way express Moshe’s motivation for inviting Yitro. No, “Please go with us, because you’re family and raised my children, your grandchildren, as your own when I was in Egypt”, no “Please come because I love you and you’re my only friend”, no “Please come because you’ve been an invaluable adviser to our whole people”. It also acknowledged no recognition of what Yitro might be giving up to go with them, of his own identity and commitments prior to and independent of the Israelites.
Yitro has put a lot of labor into the Israelites’ cause, despite his own many opportunities and responsibilities back home as Priest of Midian. It’s been thrilling work, because he finds their mission so compelling, as we saw back in Parashat Yitro (Shemot 18:1-10). “…And Yitro said, ‘Praised be YHWH, Who saved you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Par’oh, Who saved this people from under the hand of Egypt! Now I know that YHWH is greater than all the gods…’”
For Yitro, singularly focused on Israel’s mission, not its reward, “Come with us and we’ll take care of you” is not much of an invitation. “I’m not going; where I am going is to my home, my birthplace.” I have history, relationships, and responsibility, as a Midianite Priest. He taps into Israelite jargon, recalling God’s commandment that Avram leave his home, his birthplace, to go to Canaan (Bereshit 12:1). You are the ones who are homeless outside of Canaan; I have a home. I’ve left it for some time now to help with your cause, because it is so compelling; maybe I would go with you for continued participation in this cause, but if this is just a retirement gig, I’m outta here. I have a life.
Perhaps Moshe was careless with his words: he does value Yitro’s continued work, but just neglected to say so, and for that reason, he asks again, this time expressing his needs. But the second plea makes it even worse: כִּי עַל כֵּן יָדַעְתָּ חֲנֹתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וְהָיִיתָ לָּנוּ לְעֵינָיִם“/You know how we can camp in the desert and can be for us as eyes.” I imagine Yitro hearing this and thinking, “Really? That’s what you think I’ve been doing for you? I’m the map guy? Oh, ok, see ya.” Yitro knows well that his real contribution was his mission-focus and the spiritual orientation of listening and social intelligence. He paid meticulous attention to Israel’s structural composition, able, with the aid of a little critical distance, to see the diverse members of the community as activists and not passive, broken slaves, to perceive their useful insights as relevant to judicial wisdom, to maximize Moshe’s contributions and stamina by focusing them, all toward achieving their mission of a redemptive, lived Torah (Shemot 18:13-27). Moshe had a tendency to rage, burnout, and alienation from the people; it was Yitro who showed him how to create a sustainable, efficient, and accessible judicial system.
In this reading, Moshe grossly misunderstood Yitro’s contributions and Yitro may have felt insulted, disgusted, and left to question what had actually been going on in what he perceived as a deep friendship all this time. We can understand why he doesn’t even dignify Moshe’s second statement with a response, but just disappears.
But maybe that’s not what Moshe meant. Moshe’s language is not clear: כִּי עַל כֵּן יָדַעְתָּ חֲנֹתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וְהָיִיתָ לָּנוּ לְעֵינָיִם. Maybe, against my translation above, what Moshe meant was, “after all, you know all about our community organization in the desert; you see things we don’t see”. But it’s a strange way to say that, and either way, Moshe seems to have a hard time communicating to Yitro, whether or not he understands that he has a hard time communicating. Whether Moshe misunderstands and underappreciates Yitro, or just doesn’t exercise care in communicating with him, remains ambiguous, and I can’t help but wonder whether that ambiguity is the authorial intention. So often, the origins of our relationship breakdowns elude us and we don’t even know why we have bad feelings or how to mend them. On this reading, the Torah is dramatizing that dynamic for us by scripting two old friends talking past each other, parting ways without closure, and, as a result of the alienation of Yitro, our most insightful mentor and adviser, the Israelite community and Moshe its leader crumble into social disarray.
There are other coherent readings, but I think that the elegance of this explanation is that it helps us understand what triggered the tragic breakdown throughout the rest of the book of Bemidbar. It invites us to vigilance against our own sloppiness in communicating our needs, our desires, and our appreciation of others, especially when those others are outsiders to our community who contribute service and generous insight. Do we regard them as “hired help”? Do we ignore their history and strong, cultural identity? Do we regard ourselves as entitled to what they offer us and therefore do not pay attention to the nature of their genius? Do we collapse into a tunnel vision that fails to perceive the kind of clarity available to sympathetic viewers who have some critical distance? These are easy traps to fall into; by introducing our social collapse with this strange, ambiguous, little dialogue the Torah suggests that it is at our great peril that we don’t pay close attention to our social dynamics and communication.