Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Yithro

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 Yithro 5760/2000

Gershom and Eliezer - On Bringing Up Children

Professor Adrian Ziderman

Department of Economics

One of the great mysteries in Scripture is the almost total silence about Gershom and Eliezer, the two sons of Moshe. Some events relating to their childhood years are recounted, including the incident in this week's parasha on the reunion of Moshe with his wife and sons. But we know nothing at all about them as adults. There is no account provided of their development into manhood or of their relationship with Moshe. Indeed, it would have been most natural for the sons of Moshe to have assumed a major role in the leadership of the people or at least to have taken some part in public life in the wilderness. Why this did not happen is indeed something of a mystery.

The question is sharpened by the halachic perception that regards public office as a form of "property" that passes as an inheritance from father to son, except where the son is either incapable or unsuitable for the task (Mishne Torah, Laws of Kings 1, 7):

….the annointment of a king comes as a right to him and to his sons for ever, as it is stated: "so that his days and those of his sons' shall be lengthened", and not only kingship but all the positions of authority and the appointments in Israel will be passed down as an inheritance to his son and to his son's son for ever...

Evidently, Gershom and Eliezer did not assume the mantle of leadership from Moshe, nor received any other public office, because they were unsuitable for these tasks. Yet the Torah fails to provide us with even a hint as to the shortcomings. While Scripture remains silent on these issues, much of this void is filled by various midrashim, if only obliquely. We shall discuss some of the midrashim that relate to Gershon and Eliezer, in an attempt to explain why they did not assume a respected role in the leadership of the people.

According to one view in the Midrash, Moshe continued to hope that his sons would succeed him in the task of leadership. In Parshat Pinchas, Moshe calls on G-d: 'Let The Lord ..….set a man over the congregation…..that the congregation of The Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd' (Bamidbar, 27, 17-18). Rashi, following the Midrash, states that Moshe had his own sons in mind, but G-d rejected this request.

G-d said to him (Moshe): "Your sons sat around and did not engage in Torah"' (Bamidar Rabba, 21, 14).

From this and other midrashim, it is clear that Gershom and Eliezer were unfit for leadership; they neglected Torah study and, unlike Yehoshua, did not assist Moshe in holy matters. Yet this is very hard to understand. How is it that Moshe Rabbenu, who was charged with the task of transmitting the Torah to the whole people, failed to instill in his own sons a minimum of feeling towards Torah and mitsvot? What was it in their upbringing that led Gershom and Eliezer to depart so markedly from the path shown by their father? The opening sentences of Parshat Yitro, and relevant midrashim, may offer a key to answering these questions.

The Parashah begins with the arrival of Yitro in the Sinai desert, together with Zipporah the wife of Moshe and his two sons:

And Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moshe's father-in-law, heard of all that G-d had done for Moshe and for Israel His people, how The Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. And Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moshe's wife, after he had sent her away, and her two sons, of whom the name of one was Gershom…….. and the name of the other was Eliezer……..And Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moshe in the desert where he was camped, at the mountain of G-d. '.

These opening sentences raise a number of questions which have occasioned much disagreement in the Midrash and amongst the classical biblical commentators. These discussions centered, in particular, around two main issues.

Rashi asks: what did Yitro hear that made him come? Drawing on the Mechilta, Rashi gives two reasons: the parting of the Red Sea and the war with Amalek. These explanations are those of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer, respectively. Rashi does not bring a third view, also mentioned in the Mechilta - that of Rabbi Elazar Hamodai. According to this third opinion, Yitro came because he heard about the giving of the Torah (Mattan Torah). The reason that Rashi does not quote the view of Rabbi Elazar Hamodai appears to be that Rashi thought that Yitro arrived before Mattan Torah. This view seems to be based on the assumption that the events in the Parashah are recorded in chronological order, an approach endorsed by the Ramban, Rabbenu Bahya and Abarbanel.

Against this, Ibn Ezra takes a different view. Following the approach of Rabbi Elazar Hamodai, Ibn Ezra argues that Yitro arrived after Mattan Torah. We will not enter here into a discussion of the arguments for and against the proposition that the events in the Torah are written in chronological order; what is surprising is that Ibn Ezra saw the need to reverse the order of events as recorded in the Parashah. Why was it so important for Ibn Ezra to show that Yitro arrived after the Torah was given? Before dealing with this difficulty, we present our second major question.

The commentators had some difficulty in understanding the phrase "after he had sent her away". It is known that Moshe left Midian with his family on the way to Egypt; when and why did Moshe send Zipporah and their sons back to Midian? Divergent views on this question are expressed in the Midrash and the commentators. The usual view, presented by Rashi based on the Mechilta, is that this occurred after the meeting of Moshe and Aharon in the desert:

When G-d said to him in Midian "Go, return to Egypt", then Moshe took his wife and sons….and Aharon went and they met at the Mount of G-d (Mount Sinai). He said: "Who are these?" He replied: "This is my wife whom I married in Midian and these are my sons." He said to him: "And where are you taking them?" He replied: "To Egypt." He said: "We feel sorrow for the earlier ones and you want to add to their number?" He said to her: "Go to your father's house." She took her two sons and returned.

Yet there is a parallel midrash in which Yitro offers similar advice, at the time that Moshe seeks leave from Yitro to return to Egypt with his wife and sons (Shemot 4, 18). Midrash Rabba records the following conversation:

Yitro said to him: "Where are you taking them?" He replied: "To Egypt." He said to him: "Those that are already in Egypt seek to leave and you are taking them there." He replied: "In the future, they are due to leave and stand at Mount Sinai to hear from the mouth of G-d - I am The Lord your G-d - and my sons will not hear this with the others?" Immediately, Yitro said to Moshe: "Go in peace."

Why does Moshe reject the advice of Yitro while accepting that of Aharon; on the surface they seem to be offering the same advice. A closer examination of the two midrashim shows that while there is much in common, in reality Aharon and Yitro were offering very different ideas. These differences seem to reflect the contrasting characters and concerns of Yitro and Aharon. Later in the Parasha, Yitro displays his technical, administrative skills with the proffering of effective advice to Moshe on the efficient decentralization of the legal process in the desert. Similarly, Yitro's concerns about the planned journey of Zipporah and his grandsons to Egypt are predominantly technical. Why add to the number of Jews in Egypt? It would be inefficient for Moshe to take his family to Egypt, only to bring them back again to Mount Sinai. It would be far more sensible for Moshe to meet up with his family in the desert.

In contrast to this Aharon, the lover of peace and the warm human being, was clearly pained at the thought that, if they traveled to Egypt, Moshe's family would suffer the miseries of slavery. He wished to save them from these experiences. Aharon's concerns are brought out more clearly in the original Mechilta, on which Rashi bases his comment quoted above:

.. ..(Aharon) said to them: we feel sorrow for those already there and now we will feel sorrow for these also. At that time he said to Zipporah: Go back to your father's house.

In the light of these differences in the advice offered by Yitro and Aharon, we may understand more readily Moshe's contrasting responses to them. The advice of Yitro, based on logistics, is firmly rejected by Moshe. Clearly, his sons should not miss the most climactic events of the Jewish historical experience - the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah - simply to gain some efficiency in travel arrangements. Without hesitation, Moshe rejects Yitro's technical advice. Why then does he listen to the advice of Aharon, sending his family back to Midian? What happened to his fears that his sons would be absent from the giving of the Torah at Sinai? We may understand that, as Aharon describes the hardships of slavery in Egypt, the message was brought home dramatically to Moshe that he was about to impose these miseries on his own family. Thus Moshe, the protecting father, sends his sons back to Midian, so that they would avoid the pain and hardship of enslavement. He seems to be doing this against his better judgement. His natural instincts as a father displace his more rational fears, expressed earlier to Yitro, that his sons would miss Mattan Torah. And this, evidently, is what happened. Yitro brought his grandsons to meet up with Moshe only after he heard that the people were safe, protected at Mount Sinai under the clouds of glory.

This explanation of the absence of the wife and sons of Moshe on the journey back to Egypt may offer the key to an understanding of the question, When did Yitro arrive at Mount Sinai with Gershom and Eliezer? This debate is not simply a technical application of the classic question on whether or not the events described in the Torah occurred in the order that they are written. Rather, the debate centers round the question of whether or not Gershom and Eliezer were present at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and, with feelings of ecstasy and love, accepted the yoke of the Torah - "We will hear and we will observe!" - together with the rest of the nation.

According to the views of Rabbi Elazar Hamodai and Ibn Ezra, alone of all the Jewish nation, Gershom and Eliezer took no part in these central spiritual events of our history. They did not witness the thunder and lightning at Mount Sinai, nor did they hear the proclamation from on high; 'I am The Lord your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…' If this were the case, we may begin to understand something of the process that may have led to their estrangement from Torah and mitsvot.

All parents will sympathize with Moshe's attempt to make life easier for his sons, to spare them the traumatic experiences of witnessing the slavery in Egypt. Moshe may have succeeded in this, but at the heavy cost of their missing Mattan Torah. At the very time that the Jewish people were collectively standing at Mount Sinai, entering into a covenant with G-d, Gershom and Eliezer were absent, enjoying home comforts in Midian. Missing out on this experience must have left its mark on their spiritual personality. May this not be the source of their failure to become leaders of the Jewish People?

What can we learn from here? Understandably, as parents we all desire to smooth the path in life for our children, so that in growing up they may avoid some of the inevitable pitfalls and hardships of the real world. But over-protection in the formative years may lead to negative consequences over the longer term, particularly in terms of character development and values. Indeed, this seems to have occurred in the case of Moshe's sons - which is why the Torah is silent about their lives so soon after their youth, and we hear nothing of their descendents after them.

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