When Moshe asked Yisro to give him his daughter Tzippora as a wife, Yisro said, “Accept one thing which I will tell you and I will give her to you.” “What is it?” asked Moshe. Yisro replied, “The first son who will be born to you should be designated for idolatry; from then on, for Heaven.” He (Moshe) accepted this. Yisro said, “Take an oath on it,” and he took an oath, as it says, “va-yoel Moshe” (Shemos 2:21); the word “va-yoel” always means an oath. (Mechilta, Parshas Yisro)
This Midrash is quite difficult to understand. We know that Yisro had been ostracized in Midian following his rejection of idolatry (see Rashi’s commentary to Shemos 2:16-17). Although Yisro himself had been an idolatrous priest for many years, he eventually came to the realization that religious truth lay elsewhere. It was this realization that allowed Yisro to fully appreciate the splitting of the Yam Suf and the giving of the Torah in a manner that other people could or would not hear (see Shemos 18:1 and Rashi’s commentary ibid). How is it then that this same Yisro would require his future son-in-law Moshe to dedicate his first-born son to the same idolatry that he himself had rejected? In addition, how is it that Moshe, the future leader of the Jewish people and the greatest prophet who ever lived, could have consented to such a seemingly preposterous precondition?
Rav Shimon Schwab, in his sefer Mayein Bais Hashoeiva, suggests that in effect there was a great philosophical debate between Moshe and Yisro. Moshe had been raised as an observant Jew since birth. Since the day that he was born he had been the recipient of a tradition that stressed Torah study and proper Jewish values. Concepts basic to our religion permeated his very essence. It was this pure mesorah that Moshe wished to pass on to his own children.
Yisro, on the other hand, arrived at the truth through a very different set of circumstances. He had devoted his entire life to idolatry, only to later realize the futility of his efforts. Even though he now recognized that Judaism was the only true religion – as illustrated by his ultimate conversion – he still wanted his grandchildren to be able to be subjected to the same process of being exposed to and rejecting falsehood that he himself experienced. It was only after such a search for truth, he felt, that they could truly appreciate what it was that Judaism had to offer.
As a result of this debate, Moshe and Yisro arrived at a compromise. Moshe, in truth, never committed his first-born son to idolatry. Neither did Yisro really request that his first grandson be groomed in that direction. Instead, they agreed that Moshe’s first son be given the option to choose between good and evil. He would be exposed to external ideas and values, with the hope that he would emerge with a deeper and more meaningful appreciation of Hashem and the Torah.
Unfortunately, as Rav Eliyahu Dessler points out (Michtav MeEliyahu, Vol. 1, pp.153-154), the results of this decision were far from what either man had envisioned. None of Moshe’s direct descendents emerged as Torah leaders of subsequent generations. In fact, his grandson was the idolatrous priest of the cult known as “Pesel Micha” (see Shoftim 18:30 and the commentary of Rashi ibid). Even though Yisro possessed only the best of intentions, the ultimate consequence of his request was disastrous.
As parents and educators, we are often faced with a similar dilemma. How much exposure do we allow our children to the outside world, particularly today, when we are in competition with the outside world for the very neshamos of our children?
Certainly, there is no easy answer to this question.
Without a doubt, we should aim to create and sustain the type of insular environment that reduces harmful outside influences. The negative temptations that exist are very powerful and, once incorporated within our lives, are difficult to overcome. (Rav Dessler, in his explanation of the above Midrash, states that the environment in Yisro’s home did not as of yet reflect his ultimate acceptance of Hashem as G-d. As such, there was enough residual negativity so as to influence Moshe into accepting his preposterous demand. Imagine how much more of a negative influence is created by an environment such as ours, particularly when the ones who are affected hold nowhere near the same degree of spiritual strength and fortitude as that possessed by Moshe Rabbeinu!)
At the same time, we must also take pains to ensure that our children not be later overwhelmed by the challenges and experiences that life will invariably present (see Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Collected Writings, Vol. 7, pp. 411ff.). When they leave the insular walls of the yeshiva they will be faced with difficult tests, ones never before experienced by past generations. We simply cannot shelter our children from all of these temptations. Rather, we must instill within them a love for yiddishkeit that is of such a magnitude they will possess the necessary fortitude to resist and ultimately reject these outside forces.
Let us hope that we can help our children find the true depth and meaning of yiddishkeit from within, thereby satisfying the hopes of both Yisro and Moshe without running the risk that ultimately led to the downfall of their shared progeny.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach and President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.