Bar-Ilan University

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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

Parashat Behaalotekha

And You Can Be Our Guide(10:31)

Avraham Gottlieb

After Hovav (Jethro) turns down the request of his son-in-law Moses to accompany them to the Promised Land, Moses again entreats him: "Please, do not leave us," his reason being, "inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and can be our guide [literally and you shall be to us for eyes,on which see below]. So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the Lord grants us(10:31-32).

The request made by Moses consists of two arguments. The first relates to Hovav's qualities, and the second to the gratitude felt by the people towards him. The fact that they are juxtaposed indicates that the benefits to be received by Hovav in the future are the outcome of the use he has already made of his talents on Israel's behalf, as described in the first argument.

The early commentators are in dispute over Moses's words, literally "For therefore have you known our camping in the wilderness, and you shall be [or, have been] to us for eyes." (a) Is Moses referring to

Hovav's actions in the past,[1] or in the future?[2] (b) While the sense of "you have known our camping in the wilderness" seems quite clear--you have been our guide--what does "you shall be to us for eyes" mean? What do eyes symbolize here? Does the phrase refer to a quality possessed by Hovav, his knowledge of the region, as Ibn Ezra suggests, or does it indicate a favorable estimate of him by other people: "You are as dear to us as our eyes" (Sifri Behaalotcha 80, interpretation C)? Or shall we accept Bechor Shor's explanation:[3] "That the people who see you together with us will say, It is not for nothing that this man left his land and his own place, if he had not seen that the Holy One, blessed be He, was with them--and they will be afraid to harm us or fight against us"? There is still another possible interpretation: The absence of Hovav from the camp might be taken by the public as a sign that the people of Israel reject proselytes: "That you should[ not] be to us for eyes-- in the eyes of everyone, that they should say, It would seem that Jews are not willing to accept converts" (Sifri Zuta, Behaalotcha 10:31). Therefore the people requested that Jethro come along with them. It must be pointed out that the Midrash added the word not from the beginning of the verse and thus arrived at a negative sense of the expression.

In the light of these different interpretations, let us now suggest a synthesis that is characterized by fidelity both to the text and to the context, and answers the questions that have been raised. Since Moses makes his request with regard to the future, it seems reasonable that he is thinking of the future on the basis of his experience of Hovav in the past. According to the simple sense of the text, Hovav has already proved himself as a guide who is acquainted with the region. It is possible to insert here the homiletic explanation that he knew of the miracles wrought by God on behalf of the Israelites, which he had seen with his own eyes during his stay with them.[4] His knowledge both of the region and of God's ways enable him to serve as "eyes" for the people, that is, to provide leadership. Going by the context, "eyes" constitutes a description of a quality possessed by Hovav as a leader, a guide who is blessed with the ability to be eyes for the Israelites--eyes which look steadily at the countryside and give orders to the brain as to how to march and how and where to advance.


[1] Targum Onkelos; Targum Yerushalmi (Pseudo-Jonathan); Sifri Behaalotcha 80, interpretation A; and Rashbam.

[2] Sifri Behaalotcha 80, interpretation B; and Ibn Ezra.

[3] The 12th century Tosafist Rabbi Joseph Bechor Shor, son of Rabbi Isaac of Orleans, in his Commentary on the Torah, ed. Yehoshafat Nevo (Jerusalem, 1994), p. 255.

[4] Targum Onkelos; Sifri Behaalotcha 80, interpretation A; and Rashi.

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