Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Beha'alotekha 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Beha'alotekha 5760/17 June 2000 (Naso in the Diaspora)

How Moses Prevailed upon Jethro

Dr. Itamar Wahrhaftig

School of Law

Moses said to Hobab … , "We are setting out for the place… Come with us and we will be generous with you; for the Lord has promised to be generous to Israel." "I will not go," he replied to him, "but will return to my native land." He said, "Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide. So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the Lord grants us." (Num. 10:29-32)

The above passage raises several questions:

1) How does this passage relate to the story of Jethro's coming in Exodus 18?

2) Moses makes two separate appeals to Jethro, in vv.29 and 31. How did Moses' second request differ from his first?

3) Did Jethro return to his land or not? [1]

It is unclear whether the narrative here is the same story that appears in Exodus 18. There the text concludes with the words, "Then Moses bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way to his own land" (Ex. 18:27). Sforno arrived at the same conclusion, that Jethro did not remain with the Israelites, in his interpretation of our text (see note 3, below). According to Nahmanides, however, the text here in Numbers tells of a different episode. Jethro came to see the Israelites a second time, and then he acceded to Moses' request that he remain with the Israelites in the wilderness. Of course the question arises how Moses persuaded Jethro to stay with them. Specifically, he refused after Moses' first entreaty but came around after the second, in vv. 31-32. What was there in the second request that changed Jethro's mind?

The classical commentators point to three differences between the two requests in our passage:

1) A share in the land.

Nahmanides explains that at first Jethro thought that "they would give him some of the plunder of silver, gold, garments, flocks and cattle, but that he would not inherit the land along with them, [2] and therefore he did not wish to remain and answered, 'I will not go, but will return to my native land, for there I have land, wealth and respect.'" In the second request, in contrast, he was offered "'the same bounty that the Lord grants us,' hinting that he would be given an inheritance and good land as his reward for his efforts and help in conquering the land."

Indeed, proselytes did not receive a portion in the land, save for the descendants of Jethro, who received the most fertile land of Jericho, as told in Sifre Numbers, par. 81. Nahmanides concludes, "Thus it says in the Jerusalem Talmud: The sons of the Kenites, father-in-law of Moses, bring [first fruits] and recite the passage ['the soil which You, O Lord, have given me' (Deut. 265-10)], as it is written, 'So if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty.'"

2) Not to bar the way to proselytes.

The passage in Sifre, par. 80, some of which is cited by Rashi, leads us to understand that between Moses' first offer and the second, there was no change in the content of what was promised, but that Moses hinted to Jethro that it would be unbefitting for him to abandon the Israelites under the circumstances:

"Please do not leave us" (Num.10:31)-- 'Please' indicates entreaty. Moses said to him: If you do not consent, I shall order you to do so. For the children of Israel are now saying that Jethro did not become a proselyte out of love [for the Jewish faith]; rather he believed that proselytes would receive a share in the land, but when he realized that they would not receive a portion in the land, he decided to abandon them and go his own way.

Another explanation: Moses said to him: If you think you are adding to your honor [by declining to stay] you are mistaken. So many proselytes and servants are destined to adopt the Jewish faith, and you could be like our eyes [showing them the way]; do not bar the way to proselytes … For if they see that Jethro, who witnessed the miracles in the wilderness, abandoned them [the Israelites] and went his way, in so doing you would bar the way to future proselytes. [3]

3) Recompense in exchange for services.

Another distinction is made by Or ha-Hayyim. The first time, Moses promised Jethro a gift: "Come with us and we will be generous with you"; But a person does not like to receive a gift for naught, as it is said, "He who spurns gifts will live long" (Prov. 15:27). Or ha-Hayyim lists several reasons for this.

1) The recipient might be embarrassed by the giver, as it is said, "Whosoever eats not of his own..."

2) The giver might hold the recipient in less esteem.

3) The gift might be regarded as of little value in the eyes of a great person, and its existence be more distasteful than its absence.

Additional reservations can be presented regarding the promise of a gift - for example, lest the person making the promise wish to take it back. Therefore, Moses said to him the second time around that "in exchange for coming with us, we will extend the same bounty to you"; thus the favor we bestow on you is not a gift, but actually recompense for services rendered which could be sued for in court; therefore there need be no fear of embarrassment."

Moses explained to Jethro that they needed him to "be their guide." Jethro, who was contributing to the public effort, was willing to receive just payment in return. The above three interpretations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but can be viewed as complementing one another. Herein lies a lesson for our days: we must delve into the Torah and learn from it how to live in every generation.

[1] Jethro's descendants surely entered the promised land, as we read in Judges 1:16 and 4:11, and as is hinted in Deuteronomy 24:21.

[2] Proselytes did not receive an inheritance in the land, as Sifre explicitly points out with regard to this week's reading: "For the place of which the Lord has said, 'I will give it to you,' and proselytes had no share in it." Also cf. the Mishnah, Tractate Ma'aser Sheni 5.14; Bikkurim 1.4; Sifre on Deut., par. 299, 301; Mekhilta, Mishpatim, and Tosefta Bikkurim 1.

[3] Sforno takes a similar approach, except that he sees Moses as having requested that at least Jethro's sons return. Thus Sforno writes: "'Please do not leave us, at least let your sons come … but if also your sons abandon us you shall profane the Lord in the eyes of the inhabitants of Canaan, for they will say that if Jethro had truly seen godliness in them [the Israelites] he would not have left them,' … To this they agreed, … for although Jethro returned to his land, as it is said, 'Moses bade his father-in-law farewell,'(Ex.18:27) … [Sforno ties the two stories together] … his sons surely went with the Israelites, as is attested in the book of Judges."

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