Parasha Be-ha-ah-lo-techa: How to be a Good Father in Law

Do you remember the movie, “Meet
the Parents”?  It starred Ben Stiller as
a prospective son-in-law and Robert Dinero as his father-in-law to be,
Jack.  Greg, the character played by
Stiller, is a male nurse from Chicago who visits his girlfriend Pam’s home
intending to propose marriage. Once there he finds he has to pass muster with
Jack, an ex-CIA agent who takes an instant dislike to his beloved daughter’s
suitor. Greg tries to impress Jack but everything he does only makes him look
The movie plays on the anxieties that
all of us feel when meeting our prospective in-laws. We can all relate. This is
one factor which made the movie such a success.  Clearly Jack is every man’s nightmare of a
father-in – law. But what makes a good father in law? Our Torah reading for
this week provides some answers.
Our Torah portion for this week,  Behaalotecha,  re-introduces Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, who
last made an appearance in the book of Exodus. This evening I want to look at
that relationship, as well as two other son-in-law/father-in- law relationships
in the Bible. I hope by studying this, we can gain some guidance on how to be a
good father in law.  
The first the relationship I want
to examine is between Jacob and his father-in-law, Lavan.  Lavan deceives Jacob from the very beginning
by substituting his older daughter, Leah, for his younger one, Rachel, on
Jacob’s wedding day. Lavan takes Jacob into business with him, then exploits
his labor. He cheats him, and never allows Jacob to lead an independent life. Finally,
Jacob has had enough. He flees with this wife, his children and all his possessions.
Lavan pursues him, intent on harming Jacob and bringing back what he thinks
Jacob has stolen. But G-d comes to him in a dream warning him not to cause
Jacob any harm. Yet, when Lavan finally catches up to Jacob, he claims, with
stupefying arrogance, that “the daughters are my daughters, the children are my
children, and everything that you see is mine.” Still, mindful of G-d’s word, he
lets Jacob return to the Land of Caanan with his wives, children and
possessions. This is not a model of a relationship with a son-in-law that we
want to emulate.
The second son-in-law/father-in-law
relationship that I want to discuss is that of Saul and his son-in-law, David. Saul
is the King of Israel, and David a commoner. Yet David becomes a successful
warrior and is wildly popular among the Israelites. Saul becomes intensely
jealous of David’s renown among the people, and wants him dead. To that end, he
arranges a marriage with his daughter, Michal, who has fallen in love with
David. However, David is poor and cannot pay the bride price. Saul sees his
opportunity to be rid of David once and for all. “I desire no other bride price
than the foreskins of 100 Philistines,” he craftily tells David, thinking that
David might be killed in the process of gathering these, and Saul would be rid
of him forever. “No problem,” thinks David when he hears of Michal’s bride price.
David goes out with his men and brings King Saul two hundred Philistine
foreskins! David marries Saul’s daughter, Michal, but David’s relationship with
Saul continues to deteriorate.  I am sure
you will agree this also is not a foundation upon which to build a loving
family relationship.
Here is some rabbinic advice –
Don’t be a father-in-law like Lavan or a father-in-law like Saul. Both men are
jealous and competitive with their sons- in – law. Both men try to control them
and their families. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Rachel and Leah, Lavan’s
daughters, were miserable in their marriage to Jacob. Saul’s daughter, Michal
and her husband, David grew to detest one another as well.
Fortunately, there is someone to
model ourselves after in the Bible, and that is Moses’ father in law, Jethro. You
recall that Moses is pasturing Jethro’s sheep when G-d appears to him at the
burning bush. Moses returns from the divine encounter and tells his father in
law Jethro that G-d told him he needs to return to Egypt to lead his people out
of slavery. Some other father-in-law might have not-so-gently inquired if Moses
was still taking his medication. Some other father-in-law might tell him that
this is not a good time to leave the family business. Some other father-in-law
might have said, ”You can go, but my daughter and her children must stay.” Upon
hearing that Moses needs to leave, Jethro simply says, “Go in peace”. Moses then
departs for Egypt with his wife Tzippora and their two sons.
Moses’ wife and children eventually
return to Jethro’s home in Midian and do not participate in the Exodus from
Egypt. We next meet Jethro after the Exodus, bringing Moses’ wife and children
to the Israelite encampment at Mt. Sinai. Despite the danger inherent in the journey
across the wilderness, Jethro apparently feels that it is important that Moses’
sons grow up with a father in the house. He overcomes whatever anxiety or
misgivings he may have about life in the desert and puts his daughter’s
happiness and grandchildren’s wellbeing in the forefront of his concerns. They
might be safer living with Jethro in Midian, but Jethro knows they belong with
Moses and the People of Israel. When he sees Moses suffering under the burden
of leadership, Jethro offers him one piece of advice. He should appoint judges to
help him. That is the only advice that Jethro ever gives his son-in-law, and Moses
puts it to good use.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses
invites his father-in-law to join the community and journey with them to the
Land of Israel. Jethro declines. “I shall not go; only to my land and my family
shall I go.”
So we can derive four lessons on
how to be a good father in law from Jethro’s example. 1) Respect the decisions
of your daughter and her husband.  2)
Always put their welfare before your own. 3) Just give one piece of advice – no
more.  If you follow this example you will
always be welcome to visit, as was Jethro.  Therein lies the fourth lesson – like Jethro, when
you do visit, remember to leave.
Shabbat Shalom