A lesson for Moses: If youre not sincere, just dont say it

Numbers 8:1-12:16
Zechariah 2:14-4:7

His departure comes as a shocking surprise.

Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, is often depicted as the quintessential convert. He offers the image of the spiritual seeker who recognizes the beauty of Jewish life — the idea that ideals can be communicated, the dream that an outsider could join a community and become an integral part of its life.

Yitro’s arrival is lauded in the book of Exodus and its midrashic literature. Nevertheless, few speak of the episode in this week’s Torah portion in which Yitro decides to leave and go back to his home of old.

Some suggest it is only temporary, that Yitro planned to return to his adopted Jewish family after a return to Midian to convert his kinsman.

Others suggest he never planned to stay with the Jewish people, that his original arrival was only for a visit.

But that does not appear to be the plain meaning of the text, which reads: “Moshe said to [Yitro], ‘We are journeying to the place promised by Hashem. Go with us and we shall treat you well.’ He said to him, ‘I shall not go, only to my land and my family shall I go.'” (Num. 10:29-30) Based on the passage, it does seem that Yitro was leaving — for good.

What happened?

Rav Shlomo Kluger offers a startling analogy in explanation.

He likens the situation of Moshe and Yitro to that of a person planning a wedding celebration who is deliberating over inviting someone out of a sense of obligation even though he would prefer the person did not attend. So what does he do? He invites the person at the last minute, when it is likely too late to attend.

He notes that the verse prior to this exchange says that the Children of Israel were ready to go.

Only then does Moshe turn to Yitro and invite him. Why? It may have been the perfunctory “Oh, please stay” that is not intended. But Yitro is smart enough to know he isn’t really wanted there and expresses his intention to leave.

In Jewish law, there is a prohibition against making either a gift or something for sale look like more than it really is. One exception that is discussed is a perfunctory gesture that both parties know they aren’t real, such as sending an invitation to a relative across the world. Both parties know the person isn’t going to attend, but that this is a rather courteous gesture.

But there is a thin line between a courtesy that both people know is meant to a gesture of love and faking something insincere in order to look like one meant it.

When that happens here, Yitro just says “no thanks.”

It hurts so badly because one would at least hope that the other person had the decency to treat you as an intelligent adult and just talk to you about it.

The latter portion of this parasha is about the Jewish people moving on from Sinai, beginning a community journey. And what are the first four stories told? They are all, in a row, stories of misguided speech. Here, Moshe makes a play of inviting Yitro along. Next the Jews complain about the manna, talking behind backs instead of trying to work constructively. After that, Miriam speaks ill of her brother Moshe. This leads into the lies and misleading reports of the spies in next week’s Torah portion.

After this string of four incidents in a row, the Children of Israel are told they can’t go into Israel. Why? Because we haven’t learned how to make a constructive society — how to deal with difficult conversations. So we are left back for 40 more years, to learn how to do this right.

When it isn’t working, we need to deal with the issues themselves, and constructively.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Oakland’s Beth Jacob. He can be reached at [email protected] .