Parashah Ponderings

Moses, Jethro and the Work-Life Challenge

Parashat Yitro / פרשת יתרו
Torah Portion: Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

As a father and husband who is also a rabbi, balancing my dedication to my work, on one hand, and my dedication to my family and my personal well-being, on the other hand, is often tricky. When does my service to the Jewish people begin to encroach on the time and energy I have to devote to my family or myself such that I need to give less to the former and more to the latter? Alternatively, when must the demands of my family life give way to the responsibilities of my profession? Getting this balance right is crucial for all concerned. I take solace in knowing that this struggle is not mine alone; I am hard pressed to think of any adult who isn’t in this exact same position.

We find some guidance through our work-life challenge in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Yitro. In Exodus 18:2-7, Jethro, a Midianite priest and Moses’ father-in-law, sets forth from his home in Midian to the wildnerness to reunite Moses with his wife, Zipporah, and their sons, Gershon and Eliezer. Earlier in Exodus (4:20), Moses had taken Zipporah and their sons with him to Egypt after God sent him to free the Israelite people, but at some point Moses sent them back to live with Jethro. Once the Israelites were free and in the wilderness, Jethro made sure his daughter and grandsons were reunited with their father.

We don’t exactly know when or why Zipporah, Gershon and Eliezer returned to her father’s house. Rashi, a medieval biblical commentator, speculates that Moses, upon Aaron’s advice, sent them back to Midian to spare them the distress of life in Egypt. Indeed, Moses had wanted to keep his family together so they could bear witness to God’s liberation of Israel and, later, to the revelation at Sinai, but to keep his family out of harm’s way Moses opted to part from them. Perhaps, Moses had faith that they would all come back together in this moment just before God gives Israel the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

No sooner does Jethro arrive with Zipporah, Gershon and Eliezer, however, than Moses gets back to the work of governing the people. Only one day after seeing his wife and children for the first time in a long time, Moses is described as “sitting as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening” (18:13).  In response to what he sees, “Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone…’ (18:17-18). Thus, Jethro advises Moses to set up a judiciary system and to share the responsibility of adjudication with a host of capable, fair-minded men, which is exactly what Moses does.

What is Jethro’s concern? It may be, as Rashi, suggests, that Jethro sees Moses as being disrespectful of his followers by having them stand all day while he sits. It may also be that Jethro envisions Moses failing as a leader because he is taking on more than he can handle as one person. Both are logical suggestions.

Nonetheless, I would like to suggest an alternate view to why Jethro speaks up when he sees Moses laboring as the sole judge of the Israelites: Jethro sees the potential for Moses to become consumed by his role as leader and prophet and to neglect his family. To be sure, this is what happens. Aaron and Miriam end up chastising Moses over Zipporah, “that Cushite woman,” in Numbers 12. One midrash on this encounter depicts Aaron and Miriam as calling Moses out on his treatment of Zipporah. They see that Zipporah feels abandoned by Moses, who refuses to engage in sexual relations with her. Unfortunately, sexual relations would render Moses spiritually impure and/or direct his focus away from God (Tanhuma, Tzav 13 at In essence, the demands of his job restricts Moses’ ability to please his wife, and he is either unable or unwilling to negotiate with God in order to maintain peace in his family. One commentator, Ibn Ezra, sees the problem as so severe that he even entertains the possibility of the marriage ending in divorce (commentary on Ex. 18:2). To his credit, Jethro realizes that unless Moses achieves better work-life balance, Moses won’t be able to make Jethro’s daughter and grandchildren happy.

Jethro has something to teach all of us. First, don’t leave your loved ones behind as you wind your way through the wilderness of life. Protect them from harm, as Moses was coached to do, but barring any extenuating circumstances, include your family in on your journey. Some of the journey will involve mundane tasks of daily life or schlepping from one spot to another. But some of the journey will entail spectacular, peak moments when you can all experience a glimmer of God’s radiance. Both the mundane and the spectacular are necessary for a family to grow together and, it is important to add, for an individual to thrive as well.

Next, Jethro teaches us to work smarter, not harder, for the sake of our families and ourselves. Jethro understands the gravity of Moses’ situation; he doesn’t tell Moses to find a new job so he can take better care of his family. Rather, he provides Moses with a strategy that will help Moses better execute his duties and, at the same time, conserve time and energy for his wife and children. Our task is similarly to devise a strategy that will enable us to excel both as professionals and as providers for those whom we love.

Moses carried the weight of Israel on his shoulders. I, for one, don’t envy him. As difficult as it is for me or any of us to find that perfect balance between time on the job and time with one’s family, for Moses this balance was truly elusive. Despite Jethro’s attempts to help Moses succeed in this regard, for Moses a work-life balance that would satisfy him and his family may simply have been impossible to achieve.

Fortunately, few of us are in Moses’ position. While work and life may fall out of balance for us from time to time, we are always capable of resetting the scales.

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