Note: This article was written for Parshah Beha’alotcha, which was read this past Shabbat. Its publication was delayed on Friday and so it is being shared now instead.
In 1955, Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz, two American Jewish sociologists who pioneered the field of communications studies, published a book entitled Personal Influence, in which they explored “the part played by people in the flow of mass communications.” Their theory, in a nutshell, was that the most important players in the shaping of public opinion are not those who make the news, and not those who report the news, but rather those who interpret the news on behalf of others. These individuals, whom Lazarsfeld and Katz called “opinion leaders,” can be teachers, clergymen, business executives, and even prominent laypeople. The key is that they are the ones who determine the meaning of current events for those within their social network; through their speech and conduct, they provide the cues that help their friends, family and followers decide how they ought to react to developments in the world around them.
The notion that the average citizen bears a greater degree of influence upon the attitudes and behaviors of the masses than do powerful politicians or wealthy media moguls is novel indeed. Yet in this week’s Parshah, Beha’alotcha, we encounter a notion even more novel: namely, that an outsider can possess this kind of clout as well. The name of the “outsider” in our Parshah is Hovav. He is better known as Yitro, or as Moshe’s father-in-law, and he was not a member of the Israelite nation—the text identifies him as a “priest of Midian” (Exod. 18:1). Despite Yitro’s foreign status, however, a sound case can be made that there was in fact nobody whose personal example the Israelites observed more closely as they tried to decide how they would handle the many trials and travails of life in the wilderness. In this sense, Yitro was the nation’s “opinion leader.”
To appreciate this, we need to put together a few different pieces. After all, Yitro appears in only two scenes in the course of the exodus, and neither of them is exceptionally detailed. The first occurs when Yitro travels from Midian to join the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai. The second occurs as Yitro returns to Midian approximately one year later. It is in our Parshah that we find the latter of these two scenes:
Then Moshe said to Hovav the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moshe’s father-in-law: “We are traveling to the place about which Hashem said, I will give it to you. Come with us and we will be good to you, for Hashem spoken of good fortune for Israel.” He said to him: “I won’t go, for I will go to my land and my birthplace.” He said: “Please don’t leave us, for you have known our encampments in the desert, and you will be our eyes. And if you go with us, then we will bestow on you the good which Hashem grants us.” They traveled a distance of three days from the mountain of Hashem, and the Ark of Hashem’s covenant traveled three days ahead of them to seek for them a place to settle (Num. 10:29-33).
As the Israelites finally clear out of Sinai and begin their trek toward the land of Israel, Hovav (=Yitro) contemplates parting ways with them. Moshe senses this and pleads with Yitro to stay. He does so not only out of consideration for his personal relationship with his father-in-law, but also—in fact, primarily— because he recognizes Yitro’s value as a source of guidance to the nation as a whole: “Please don’t leave us, for… you will be our eyes.” For his part, however, Yitro rejects Moshe’s initial overture and issues no response whatsoever to his second appeal. He simply disappears into the distance, never to be seen from or heard from again.
Yet Yitro’s absence is felt immediately. No sooner does he exit the text do the Israelites begin to grow restless: “And the people took to complaining wickedly in the ears of Hashem” (11:1). Curiously, the Torah records neither the cause nor the substance of this complaint. But perhaps the geographic location of these complainers—viz., “the perimeter of the camp” (ibid.)—offers a hint. It would appear that after bidding Yitro farewell, the Israelites suddenly find themselves wishing that they could go with him; now that he has abandoned the camp, they begin clamoring to do the same.
A few verses later, in fact, some of the Israelites express these sentiments explicitly. They do so by recalling the many luxuries they had enjoyed in Egypt that are no longer available to them as denizens of the desert. Thus:
The multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then the Israelites once again began to cry, and they said, “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at (literally: there is nothing but to the manna our eyes). Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance (literally: its eye) was like the appearance (literally: the eye) of crystal… Moshe heard the people weeping with their families, each one at the entrance to his tent. Hashem became very angry, and it was evil in the eyes of Moshe. Moshe said to Hashem, “Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes, that You place the burden of this entire people upon me…? If this is the way You treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune.” (Num. 10:4-15).
Mere days after the departure of Yitro—a man whom Moshe had dubbed the “eyes” of the nation—the Israelites protest because they find nothing but manna before their “eyes.” That is no coincidence. Indeed, these two episodes—Yitro’s departure and Israel’s protest—contain a symbolic total of seven instance of the root ע.י.נ, i.e., “eyes.” This, coupled with the fact that several of the uses of ע.י.נ in our passage are either redundant (“its eye was like the eye of crystal”) or unidiomatic (“there is nothing but to the manna our eyes”), suggests that it is for the purpose of developing thematic meaning that the Torah deliberately and obtrusively repeats this word. In the absence of Yitro, the text intimates, the Israelites no longer see accurately. Their vision has become jaundiced, as has that of their leader (“it was evil in the eyes of Moshe”); moreover, Moshe projects, even Hashem’s outlook has grown unfavorable (“why have I not found favor in Your eyes?”).
Along with the loss of Yitro, then, the nation also loses its ability to assess its situation calmly and objectively. In this regard, it is fascinating to note that out of all the criticisms the Israelites voice during their wanderings in the desert—about food (Exod. 16:1-3, Num. 11:4-6, Num. 21:4-5), about water (Exod. 17:1-3, Num. 20:1-5), about Moshe (Num. 12:1-2, Num. 16:1-14, Num. 16:6-8), about lack of safety and security (Exod. 14:9-12, Num. 14:1-4)—not a single one is raised in the time that Yitro accompanies them. Indeed, their criticisms exactly booked Yitro’s stint with them, ending as soon as he enters the scene (Exod. 17 vs. Exod. 18) and starting up again as soon as he exits (Num. 10 vs. Num. 11).
That is because Yitro provided what nobody else could: an outsider’s perspective. The Israelites, who benefited daily from Hashem’s miracles on their behalf, had gradually learned to expect them. But Yitro the Midianite was so moved by the report of these miracles that he left behind his fame and family back home in order to witness Israel’s station firsthand:
Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, the priest of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel, His people—that Hashem had taken Israel out of Egypt…. And he said to Moshe, “I, Yitro, your father-in-law, am coming to you… So Moshe went out toward Yitro, prostrated himself and kissed him, and they greeted one another, and they entered the tent. Moshe told his father-in-law about all that Hashem had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians on account of Israel, and about all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how Hashem had saved them. Yitro rejoiced over all the good that Hashem had done for Israel—that He had rescued them from the hands of the Egyptians. Yitro said, “Blessed is Hashem, Who has rescued you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the deities…!” Then Moshe’ father-in-law, Yitro, sacrificed burnt offerings and peace offerings to God, and Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to dine with Moshe’s father-in-law before God (Exod. 18:1-12).
We can only imagine the impact that Yitro’s glowing endorsement must have had upon the Israelites’ collective psyche. Here stood an individual who had voluntarily sacrificed his own comfort and prestige for the privilege of partaking in a lifestyle that had been the object of their incessant gripes. If nothing else, then, Yitro’s conviction must have given them occasion for pause. Indeed, as long as he remained with them, they could not conscionably complain—his very presence served to remind them, constantly, of the desirability of their lot.
Now we understand why Moshe sought so desperately to keep Yitro by his side—and why Yitro’s refusal to do so proved so devastating. If Yitro’s arrival in Sinai reassured the Israelites that their national aspirations were viable, then his abrupt return to Midian accomplished the exact opposite. Nor was Moshe equipped to undo the damage: nothing he could possibly do would ever earn him the authority that Yitro had enjoyed purely by dint of his outsider’s status. To the people, Moshe’s exhortations were simply less compelling than the personal example that his father-in-law had set, first by joining the Israelite camp and, ultimately, by leaving it. So Moshe greatly missed Yitro. In this respect, his exclamation following Yitro’s departure is most instructive. “I cannot carry these people alone, for they are too heavy for me,” Moshe laments [לא אוכל אנכי לבדי לשאת את כל העם הזה כי כבד הוא ממני] (Num. 11:14)—an ironic echo of the very remark Yitro himself had directed Moshe’s way when he had first joined the Israelite camp: “this task is too heavy for you, you cannot do it alone” [כבד ממך הדבר לא תוכל עשהו לבדך] (Exod. 18:18). How prescient Yitro’s words would prove to be.
Ultimately, the Israelites never fully recovered from the loss of Yitro. In our Parshah, they are punished for their complaints with fire (Num. 11:1) and a plague (ibid. 11:33); in next week’s Parshah, their complaints lead Hashem to postpone by forty years their entry into the land of Israel, until such time as all the members of the current generation would perish in the wilderness (Num. 14:20-35). For these older Israelites, it was a tragic end to an exodus that that opened with such high hope.
Yet it could have ended differently. Had they wished to, the Israelites might have welcomed Yitro’s departure as an opportunity to demonstrate that they no longer relied upon outsiders to confirm their national self-worth. Instead they simply sought a new set of outsiders to serve as their “opinion leaders.” The “mixed multitude” craved for meat, so the Israelites followed suit. The Egyptians dined on certain delicacies, so the Israelites demanded them as well. The Canaanites appeared mighty, so the Israelites acted weak: “we were as grasshoppers in our own eyes,” report the spies upon their return from Canaan—invoking the “eye” motif yet again—“and thus we appeared in their eyes as well” (Num. 13:33).
Granted, a people should take seriously the ways in which it is perceived by its neighbors. This is especially true of the people of Israel, who cannot fulfill their mandate as a “light unto the nations” when they are subject to international scorn and derision. Hence it was appropriate for Moshe to argue, in the aftermath of the sin of the spies, that Hashem should spare the Israelites out of concern for what “the nations of the world will say should You destroy [the Israelites]” (Num. 14:15). If kiddush Hashem, darchei shalom and tikkun olam are among our objectives as a people, then world opinion is, willy-nilly, a metric which we must carefully track.
Nevertheless, Goodhart teaches us, a measure that comes to be treated as a target ceases at once to serve as an effective measure. When the members of a nation constantly cast self-conscious glances over their shoulders in search of others’ approval, they inevitably lose sight of the road ahead. As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites had grown dependent upon external validation. They had become—to modify Cooley’s phrase—the “looking-glass nation:” they were whoever they thought that others thought that they ought to be. That is why they failed.
A nation must never outsource to others the responsibility of defining its own identity. It must be brave enough to forge its own path forward. It must proceed with sensitivity, with caution and with humility, but not with shame and timidity. Most of all, it must possess the confidence to claim its own character and the willingness to realize its own destiny. Such is the only way to reach the Promised Land.