The Fidelity of In-laws

By Joan Leegant

Published January 24, 2003, issue of January 24, 2003.
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When is an in-law not just an in-law? Henny Youngman jokes aside, there are times when a mother-in-law or father-in-law takes on the role of guide, mentor, comforter, surrogate parent. It’s a role not exclusive to in-laws, of course. Haven’t we all had times when a teacher or a youth leader or a friend’s mother stepped forth and filled those important shoes? Some years back, reflecting on adults who’d been a comfort to me in various eras, I remembered my childhood piano teacher, Mrs. C. I was in fact a terrible piano student, seldom practicing the classical pieces I was assigned and spending all my time on the tinny spinet in our living room illicitly banging out improvisational riffs on Broadway show tunes without Mrs. C’s knowledge, but I faithfully showed up at that lesson in her airy studio on the other side of town week after week, year after year, woefully unprepared, until I was 17. Why? Because I liked Mrs. C. Or, more accurately, I liked her calming presence, for we didn’t so much talk as just sit and quietly consider the music with an occasional nod to what might be going on at home. My family was going through a rough time — there had been deaths, our orphaned cousins had moved in with us, the family dynamics were tense and difficult — and my hour with Mrs. C. was a welcome refuge. Years later I learned that Mrs. C. was studying for a degree in psychology during those years, which probably explains why now, decades later, I associate that hour with more than just muddling through the notes.

So it should come as no surprise to consider that the Bible, like many ancient texts, contains among its multitude of rich stories several that dip into the character of such personal guides. One such figure is Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law and a Midianite priest. In the Torah portion bearing his name we read about Yitro’s advice to the overwhelmed Moses to stop hearing all the people’s cases himself and delegate to qualified judges. We know this is wise counsel because it makes sense (what is the hallmark of modern management if not delegation?) and because apparently it worked: In Deuteronomy 1:9-18, the aging Moses makes special mention of the system in one of his summing-up public addresses.

But just as a father-in-law is not simply a father-in-law, Yitro is not simply Yitro. He is also, according to the Ramban, most likely Chorev, a name that stems from the root “to love” and who appears in Numbers 10:29, identified as Moses’ father-in-law. In those verses, Moses begs Chorev to stay with him in the wilderness to help him find a place to camp, telling the people that Chorev “shall be for them like eyes.” While much has been made in the midrash of Chorev/Yitro’s former idol-worshiping and to his seeing the light (or, more accurately, hearing the word) and converting to monotheism upon inspiration from Moses, there is room in the commentaries to suggest that it was Chorev/Yitro who introduced Moses to the concept of one God in the first place and that the so-called conversion was the other way around.

This view of Chorev/Yitro as spiritual guide to Moses fits what we know of Moses as an archetypal hero who, separated from his origins and alone, perennially searches for parent surrogates who can help him and save him from harm (a timeless theme in mythology and art: Consider the many fairy godmothers of tales, the novels of Charles Dickens and the movies of Steven Spielberg). However, in Moses’ case, Chorev/Yitro isn’t the first such father surrogate; that would be the Pharaoh — though, not accidentally, the two older men have striking similarities: Both are royalty; both are holy men; both are the fathers of women important to Moses (let’s not forget who fished him out of the water in that basket), and neither is a Hebrew. In other words, a powerful mentor from the world of the Other who, interestingly, helps him find his true self.

An isolated example of biblical in-law fidelity? In fact, the in-law/Other as significant personal guide has substantial resonance throughout the Tanakh. Though we often recall the story of Ruth for Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law, Naomi, in the end it is Naomi who serves Ruth: as guide for how to woo the redeemer-of-her-name, Boaz. Joseph in Egypt finds a guardian in the Pharaoh of his time, a symbolic, if not actual, father-in-law, given Joseph’s Egyptian wife. Then, of course, there is Laban, the conniving father-in-law of Jacob, to remind us that not all such relationships bear healthy fruit.

Joan Leegant’s collection of stories, “An Hour in Paradise,” will be published by W.W. Norton later this year. She teaches writing at Harvard University and Hebrew College.

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