Parashat Beha’alotcha / פרשת בהעלתך
Torah Portion: Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Thus far in the Book of Numbers, Israel has remained stationed at the base of Mt. Sinai, where Moses has taken a number of censuses: the men of fighting age; those from the tribe of Levi who will serve in the Tabernacle; and the firstborn of all Israelites, who are to be redeemed from a life of service to God. In addition, God has ordained where each of the tribes is to be situated in the camp in relation to the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle has been dedicated for use, and the Israelite’s prepare to begin their march from Mt. Sinai to the Holy Land. It is in this latter moment that we find one of the Torah’s most poignant, yet enigmatic, moments.
Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the LORD has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ 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.”
They marched from the mountain of the LORD a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the LORD traveled in front of them on that three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them. (Numbers 10:29-33)
Just before God gives Israel the signal to begin their march, Moses invites his father-in-law Jethro, a Midianite priest, here named “Hobab”, to join the Israelites as they set out for the Land of Israel. Jethro’s response is to say that he plans to go back to his native land. At that, Moses implores Jethro to come with them and to serve as their guide. Moses even promises Jethro that he will share in the bounty that God had promised for Israel.
But then… nothing. And then the sound of hundreds of thousands of Israelites moving forth. We’re left with a cliffhanger. Did Jethro go home or join the Israelites? We can’t know the answer to this with any certainty.
One midrash (Sifrei Bamidbar 81:1) suggests that, at least, Jethro’s sons entered the Land. Once in the land, Israel apportioned the “choicest land of Jericho” to sons of Jethro as a holding until the tribe of Benjamin later inhabited that parcel of land following the construction of the First Temple. Perhaps Jethro was with his sons as they journeyed with the Israelites toward the land. It is also possible that his sons remained with Moses as he returned home.
What is clear from this midrash, however, is that Jethro was far from forgotten. Jethro is remembered as the father of a group of righteous gentiles who aided Israel in conquering and settling the Holy Land. Perhaps, he was also instrumental in guiding Israel safely through the perils of the wilderness. Regardless, the Israelites owed Jethro and his kin a debt of gratitude.
Whether Jethro remained with Israel in the desert or returned home is less important than the fact that Israel carried with them a memory of Jethro. The Torah recounts Jethro’s sage advice to Moses to set up a system of courts to handle all the cases that Israel would eventually bring to the Moses. The Torah recounts how Moses valued Jethro’s knowledge of the wilderness and his ability to guide Israel. And then the rabbis tell us that even in the Land of Israel, the descendants of Jethro held a privileged place. Jethro may have been gone, but he was not forgotten.
This Shabbat is my last as the visiting rabbi for Temple Beth Sholom in Salem, OR. Over the past three years, this community has become like family to me in many respects. During my monthly visits from Houston, congregants have graciously hosted me in their homes for the weekend. In times of need, such as following the floods in Houston on Memorial Day in 2015, my TBS family supported my family and me morally and financially. These are people I can count on. That’s what family is all about.
In many ways, I see myself as the Jethro of TBS. I’ve been among the community these three years, but not wholly of the community. Time, distance and my family’s circumstances have dictated that we not move on with TBS into the next phase of the community’s life. Despite these realities, TBS and I have fully embraced each other just as Israel and Jethro had embraced each other.
As I now return to Houston, and TBS marches forward, I will cherish the memories of my time here and remember all that this community has done for me and all they have accomplished. I pray, too, that my memory will endure with TBS long after I have departed. If I’m lucky, I’ll be accorded even a fraction of the lasting affection that our tradition still extends to Jethro.