Parenting By Parsha: Yitro

In our home, we have a game that we play several times a day, called Click-Pow. The premise is pretty simple. Our toddler is really into clicking the fasteners on the high chair and stroller into place. When they’re secured, he looks at my wife or me with an expectant eyebrow raise. Then we all exclaim, “Pow!” together as either my wife or I release the fasteners all at once. 

Giggle, rinse, repeat. 

Being only 18 months old, however, means that our toddler doesn’t really have the fine motor skills to get those fasteners into place every time. The same is true with his fork and spoon abilities. Sometimes the food goes everywhere, sometimes it goes in his mouth — it’s a 50-50 chance. More often than not, we end up helping out, guiding his little hand in the right direction. 

All of this was on my mind as I sat down to read this week’s Parsha, named after Moses’ father-in-law, the priest of the Midianites, Yitro. 

This Torah portion is a strange anti-climax. After the nail-biter that was Beshalach, it feels almost lazy to start this week with a calm conversation between Moses and Yitro. I’m paraphrasing, but the first few verses read something like this: 

“Wow,” says Yitro, “What God did for your people is so incredible! That was some very impressive salvation you guys just experienced.” Moses nods, “Yeah, right? I thought it was pretty amazing, myself.”

Not the stuff of action films, although the point is unambiguous. In case you, the reader, didn’t get the point, we should be in awe of the wonders God exhibited in the past few chapters. 

Once the niceties and small talk are disposed of, the story gets a little more emotionally interesting. The two men sit down for a heart-to-heart and discuss the governing structure that Moses has planned for the Israelites. Now that he’s in charge of these hundreds of thousands of people, there should be some sort of framework in place, right? Nope. Moses tells Yitro that the plan is for him to do everything on his own. 

Yitro is troubled. “Why do you act alone,” he asks, in Exodus 18:14, “while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”

Moses, unperturbed, replies that “when they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.”

At this point in the story, I think it’s important to remember that Moses isn’t just a prophet. Behind the public-facing persona of a strong, if reluctant, leader is a flawed human with a complicated relationship to his various mentors. Think about it. 

He was born to Amram and Yocheved, parents who didn’t raise him (besides Yocheved being his wet-nurse, but that’s a different story). He had adopted royal parents, but he renounced them when he fled Egypt, and ended up driving his ex-family into the Red Sea. He came under the wing of the Midianites, especially Yitro, when he married Zippora. This may be the first time he feels a sense of belonging, but before he could catch his breath, God (arguably the most influential of Moses’ mentors), shook things up and sent him back to Egypt to reclaim a culture he’d never really known. 

After all that, Moses, this young father of two, is tasked with leading a horde of hungry Israelites through the desert. It’s not a stretch to say that he could use some advice. Perhaps even someone to guide his hand in the right direction. 

This is such a tender moment. Yitro’s concern for Moses is sincere, and his guidance is frank, but heartfelt. “The thing you are doing is not right.” he says in Exodus 18:17-18, “you will surely wear yourself out, and these people, too. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”

Or, in other words, it’s okay to ask for help, son. It’s okay to get support where you need it. Lean on me. Lean on others. 

This Parsha doesn’t stay languid for long; in a few verses, the Israelites will be standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, receiving the 10 Commandments, God’s voice booming through “a thick cloud” from the mountaintop. It was tempting to write about the commandments, especially the fifth one which requires that you “honor your father and mother, that you may long endure on the land the Lord God gives to you.” (Exodus 20:12) This commandment is one of the most fascinating ones. By clocking in at number five, it sits on the boundary between the commandments that are between God and humankind (בין אדם למקום) and those that deal with issues between humans (בין אדם לאדם). I was always taught that this is because our parents are our creators, which makes them akin to our Divine creator. Honoring them is, therefore, a form of honoring the Divine presence. 

Yitro and Moses’ conversation at the beginning of the portion is more interesting to me than that commandment, though. First of all, it’s a moment that shows how one can honor their mentor or parent. Second, it describes how that same parent can honor his child, by truly seeing what they need in that exact moment. The honor and respect are mutual, which is what makes it all the more profound. Third, and not least, Yitro is not Moses’ biological parent, but he steps up in this moment and takes on a parenting role when his son-in-law most needs it. Without making too much of a fuss about their relationship, this exchange exemplifies, for me, how diverse familial connections can be just as powerful as biological ones. My wife and I talk a lot about surrounding our kiddo with kind and wise adults so that he always has someone we trust to turn to when in need, even if that person isn’t one of us.

The most powerful of all, though, is the content of Yitro’s message: don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

I am terrible at asking for help, and one of my fears is that I will pass this addiction to flying solo to my child. When I read this Biblical imperative to delegate, it felt like the bell tolling for me. I’d never noticed this passage before; it’s always outdone by the fire and brimstone of Mount Sinai. As a parent who struggles with leaning on others, it resonates now more than ever. 

This morning, when we played Click-Pow in my toddler’s stroller (and my wife, bless her, made coffee), we clicked the fasteners into place together. “Yay!” said my little one, and clapped. “We did it together!” I answered, “Yay us!”