Family matters: How to be an in-law and not an outlaw

Rabbi James Gordon

By Rabbi James Gordon, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Yitro (Exodus 18:1–20:23)

On August 20, 2016/17 Menachem Av, I assumed a new familial role.  That day, my daughter Rita married her B’shert, Carmi.  As soon as Carmi stepped on the glass under the Chupa my wife Marilyn officially became a Shviger (Yiddish for “mother-in-law”) and I a Shver (Yiddish for both “father-in-law” and — “difficult”; as in: “s’iz shver tzu zayn a Yid”).

While I was comfortable in my role as a son, husband and father, I found my new identity as a father-in-law, somewhat daunting.  After all, for generations there has been a bias against both Shvigers and Shvers.  In fact, some time ago, a prominent Jewish man – who had a mother-in-law well-known for her strong, over-the-top personality – once asked me: “What’s the difference between in-laws and out-laws?”  Stumped by the question, with a serious countenance, he provided me with the answer:                     “Out-laws are wanted!”

A bachelor, at the time, after nervously laughing along, I murmured to myself:  “When I become a father-in-law, I want to be wanted!”  Slowly I began to study-up on how to achieve this goal.  In addition to learning from positive role models (including my own parents; Marilyn’s parents passed away before we met), the primary (negative and positive) models that I studied were those presented in the Torah.

In the Book of Genesis, we read of two fathers-in-law (Lavan and Yehuda) each of whom truly deserved to be known as a Shver since they made life difficult for the spouses of their children.  Jacob’s uncle Laban became his father-in-law — twice.  Lavan deceived Yaakov both in their personal and business dealings.  We learn later in the Torah’s opening book that strained relationships with fathers-in-law were not reserved exclusively for sons-in-law.  In Genesis 38, we read about how Yaakov’s son Yehuda made life difficult for his daughter-in-law Tamar – a childless widow of Yehuda’s sons Ehr and Onen – by not fulfilling his promise that she would marry his youngest son Shela, thus allowing the effectuation of the Biblical Mitzvah of Yibum.

Based upon the devious exploits of Lavan and Yehuda, one could reasonably conclude that fathers-in-law deserve to be called Shvers.  But then, in the Book of Exodus, things changed – for the better.   

In this week’s parasha we are introduced to Yitro who shattered this unflattering stereotype, and showed that parents-in-laws must do all they can to make the lives of their children easier, rather than more challenging.  In many ways Yitro is an exemplar of how a father-in-law (and mother-in-law) should act.  

The Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) teaches that, in addition to the gender-specific obligations of B’rit Mila and Pidyon HaBen, the main obligations that a father has to a son (which I feel can be extended to the responsibilities that both parents have to sons and daughters) is providing a traditional Jewish education, helping find a suitable Jewish spouse, assisting in preparing the child to make a living, and teaching swimming (and other survival skills).

It is my opinion (surely not novel) that the main role of parents-in-law (and parents of adult children), is to help ensure that the children and grandchildren continue on the Derekh (path) prescribed in the above-referenced Talmudic cite.  They do this by following the lead of their children, and then supporting their progeny in all ways they can afford – through gifts of both their time and financial resources.  Unlike a parent of minor children, parents-in-law must act with special caution and not be intrusive or perceived as such in their expressions of Chizuk (support).  

Yitro acted in this manner as a parent and father-in-law.  

Overshadowed by the first rendition of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), towards the beginning of this week’s Sidra we read how Yitro, not only introduced the world to a multi-tiered judicial system, but he also provided extraordinary advice to his son-in-law as to the importance of time management and the efficient utilization of one’s skill set.  Instead of judging all of the disputes that arose among the Israelites, Yitro advised Moses to focus only on the most difficult, while others (who could be trained as judges) would (competently) handle the majority of cases.  Not only was this sound advice for the well-being and efficient functioning of the Israelite society, but it also would free-up Moses, providing him with more time to spend with his family.  

At the recommendation of Aaron (see Rashi to Exodus 18:2), Moses decided that, until the Israelites successfully crossed the Sea of Reeds, his wife and children would be better off not joining him.  Yitro continued to provide, lovingly, room and board to his daughter and grandchildren thus enabling Moses to continue to perform his role at peak level, while ensuring the physical and emotional well-being of his family.

Today, many times, adult children choose to lead a more observant Jewish lifestyle than their parents.  While for some families this causes tension and discord, such was not the case in Yitro’s Mishpacha.  Yitro not only respected his daughter Tziporah’s religious way of life, but he also chose to adopt it for himself.  After serving as a Midian priest, a close advisor of Pharaoh, and a highly-respected leader in the gentile world, Yitro opted to accept and embrace the Torah and Mitzvot.

Instead of using a controversial word for “father-in-law,” like a Hebrew version of Shver, the Torah refers to Yitro as a Choten.  A neutral word, the root of which basically means “to bind,” it is defined by the bearer of this title and how he acts in this role.  Yitro, through his own behavior, gives Choten a positive meaning.  Furthermore, on multiple occassions Yitro – who was so proud of Moses (see Rashi to Exodus 18:1) – is referred to as “Choten Moshe,” enhancing this title even more.  

In honor of Yitro and his exemplary behavior as a father-in-law – which I strive to adopt, I ask that you refer to me not as a Shver, but rather as a Choten.  Furthermore, since I too am extremely proud of my son-in-law, my ideal title is Choten Carmi.  I say this with all sincerity, but also, I must admit – – I really do want to be wanted.

Rabbi James M. Gordon, teaches Jewish Business Ethics at the Hebrew Theological College.

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