By Rabbi Shmuel Silber
“Now Moses’ father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt (Shemos 18:1).”
The commentaries try to understand what motivated Yisro, the high priest of Midyan to come and join the fledgling Jewish people. According to some it was the splitting of sea, according to others it was the war with Amalek and some explain that it was the Sinaitic revelation. But something changed; “Moses saw his father in law off, and he went away to his land (Shemos 18:27).” The Torah in Bamidbar tells us that it was Yisro who said to Moshe, “… I will travel back to my home and to my birthplace (Bamidbar 10:30).” Why did Yisro leave? After he made the effort to leave Midian and according to some gave up much wealth and fame – why did he choose to return back home?
Young Menachem Mendel from the city of Kotzk was convinced by an acquaintance to spend some time learning by the great Chassidic master, the Chozeh (Seer) of Lublin (Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, 1745-1815). After a few months away from home, Menachem Mendel’s father was upset that his son had chosen to follow in the ways of Chassidus (Menachem Mendel’s family were “misnagdim,” those opposed to the Chassidic movement) and decided to travel to Lublin to persuade his young son to return home. When he found his son in the home of the Chozeh, he said, “Menachem Mendel, this is not the way I raised you – this is not the tradition of your forefathers, I beg of you return with me and embrace the path of service of your ancestors.” Menachem Mendel replied quoting a verse from the Shira (song) in last week’s Parsha, “….this is my God (Zeh Keyli), and I will make Him great, the God of my father (Elokay Avi), and I will ascribe to Him exaltation (Shemos 15:2).” “Father, I fully embrace all you have taught and conveyed to me, I fully accept the ideas and ideals you have emblazoned upon my soul. But it is not enough for me to live with “your God,” I must find “my God.” You have given me Elokay Avi, the God of my father, now I must find and cultivate a relationship with Zeh Keyli, my personal God.” Young Menachem Mendel grew up and became the famed, Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859).
The Kotzker teaches us a profound idea. There are two elements or components in man’s relationship with God.
Elokai Avi, the God of my father – each of us inherits a spiritual legacy from the generations that preceded us. I learn the spiritual ideals and outlooks of my parents. I accept their values and appreciate their philosophy and theology.
Zeh Keyli, this is my God – but I must also strive to forge my own personal and special bond with God. I must discover, “My God,” I must uncover what makes me unique and use it to build a bond between myself and my Father above.
Perhaps, this is why Yisro went back to Midian. When Yisro camped with the Jewish people the text referred to him as “Chosein Moshe, the father in law of Moshe” – his individual identity was eclipsed by his relationship to the Prophet of Israel. Although it was a great honor to be identified as Moshe’s father-in-law, Yisro felt that he had personal contributions to make. Yisro understood that if he travelled with the nation he would simply be a face in the crowd. He knew his potential, he knew he had the ability to influence others, he knew he could make a difference but he felt that in order to do so he had to go back to Midian and blaze his own trail. Yisro was trying to find his Zeh Keyli; he was trying to find his personal God.
We each possess a collective and individual identity. Our collective identity is forged by the generations who came before us. This identity is solidified through the lessons of our parents and their parents before them. But collective, historical identity is not enough. I must strive to create my own unique relationship and personal connection to God. I must try to find my strengths, talents and abilities and use them in the service of God. We may observe the same mitzvos, recite the same prayers and share common practices but we are individuals when it comes to a relationship with God. Each relationship is unique and individualized. I nurture my Elokay Avi and celebrate my Zeh Keyli.
Originally appears on YUTorah