Moshe's Promise RIght or Wrong?

Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Parshas Yisro

There is an interesting story told in the Book of Judges, Chapter 17. Someone by the name of Michiyahu founded an idolatrous cult. He had an idol and built a temple for this purpose. He sought someone with leadership qualities, charisma and spirituality to lead his group. After a long search he met Yehonasan ben Gershon ben Menashe, of the House of Levi. Michiyahu offered him the job of High Priest of his new religion. Yehonasan agreed.

Who was Yehonasan ben Gershon ben Menashe of the House of Levi? His grandfather could not have been Menashe, the well-known villain, for he had not been born yet. According to the Gemara (Bava Basra 109) “Menashe” is really a disguised form of “Moshe”. Yehonasan was the grandson of Moshe Rabeinu!

Nachas! What did Moshe do to deserve such a grandson? The Midrash explains that after working as a shepherd for Yisro (the high priest of Midian), Moshe sought his permission to marry his daughter T’zipora. Yisro agreed, with the stipulation that Moshe agree that their firstborn son would be dedicated to serve as a High priest in the Midianite religion. Yisro wanted to make sure he would have a successor. He told Moshe that the rest of his children Moshe could bring up as he saw fit but the firstborn he wanted for himself. Moshe agreed! He calculated that by the time his firstborn son would be old enough to serve as a priest, he (Moshe) would have converted Yisro to Judaism, and Yisro would no longer hold him to his undertaking. He rationalized that if Tziporah marries someone else then not just Gershon but all of Tziporah’s children would become Pagans. He justified his actions by reasoning that since Tziporah was his Bashert, he didn’t have the right to push her away.

Moshe’s promise nevertheless haunted him for years. He named his first born Gershon because, as he put it, “I was a stranger in a strange land.” I wasn’t my own man. I couldn’t make my own decisions; I was a guest – a stranger. He didn’t circumcise Gershon because that would have been a violation of his agreement with Yisro. Even when an Angel almost killed Moshe, his wife Tziporah, who never promised anything, was the one who actually circumcised Gershon. As it turned out, Moshe’s calculations proved correct, so that his eldest son Gershon was indeed saved from idol-worship. But somehow in Shomayim the story had not ended. Moshe made a promise and promises have their effect. Moshe’s son was spared but his grandson became a priest.

What exactly was Moshe’s sin here? William Shakespeare wrote, “Even the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” From our Midrash we learn that even the greatest Prophet of all times, the Tzadik, the humblest of all men can agree to Idolatry for his purpose!

The end does not justify the means. G-d is more concerned with what we do than what will eventually come out of our deeds. Our world is limited to the decisions we make and the actions we take. What will happen in the end; that’s G-d’s business. We do not engage in consequentialism. The first step of corruption is when the end justifies the means. When one rationalizes ones decisions for the sake of a greater good, truth becomes unimportant and integrity wanes. We become a crooked people.

Someone told me of a Baal Teshuva who went to Israel and enrolled in a Yeshiva. His parents called him frantically; “Don’t you see they are brainwashing you!” The son responded immediately. “Mom” he said, “after 25 years in the USA and 5 years in the family business my brain could stand a good washing.”

When Yisro made his counterproposal to Moshe insisting that his firstborn be groomed as a pagan priest there was only one answer that would have been correct – no. It’s unthinkable. When Jews in the Inquisition, or the Crusades, or in the Soviet Union, or in the Holocaust were asked to give up their religion there was only one correct answer – no. When Jews are asked to be unethical, unscrupulous, dishonest or deceiving the answer must be – no. If we start thinking about the greater good, the chesed, the pleasure, and the fulfillment of personal goals and as a result we start to compromise our integrity, then we are looking for serious trouble.

The leader of the Reform movement, Eric Jaffe, recently commented, “As essential as boundaries are, one must be very careful not to become obsessed with them.” I say hang on to those boundaries with all your life. They will keep our families together. They will keep us alive as a people.

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