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Parshas Yisro (5773)

In-Laws: You Gotta Love 'Em!

The great medieval scholar Nachmanides, in his commentary to the Torah, quotes a Midrash that says that before Rabbi Yannai and his fellow sages would meet with the Roman authorities, descendants of Esau, to plead their case on behalf of the Jewish people, they would first read Parshas Vayishlach which discusses our forefather Jacob’s strategy in dealing with his brother Esau who was threatening to kill him.

I would humbly add that when looking for a suitable spouse, one should read Parshas Chayei Sarah, in which Eliezer, our forefather Abraham’s trusted servant, searches for and successfully finds a good match for Abraham’s son Isaac. And when having to deal with in-laws, one should read the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Yisro, to see how Moses, the greatest Jew who ever lived, reacted when he was told by his well-meaning father-in-law Yisro that he was doing it all wrong.

In fact, one of the biblical sources for the obligation to honor one’s in-laws can be found in this week’s Torah portion. The Torah relates that when Yisro entered the Jewish encampment in the desert, Moses went out to greet him “and he prostrated himself and kissed him” (see Exodus 18:7). The Mechilta (one of the main Midrashic works) teaches that from here we learn that one is obligated to honor one’s in-laws.

[Another scriptural source, quoted by the Ta”z in his commentary to Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) Yoreh Deah “Laws of Honoring Parents” 240:24, is a verse in the Book of Samuel 1 24:12 in which David says to his father-in-law King Saul, “See now, my father, indeed, see the corner of your coat…”. The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni 133 writes that from the fact that David called his father-in-law “father” we learn that one is obligated to honor his father-in-law the same way he honors his father.]

And Moses didn’t just stop at kissing his father-in-law. After hearing Yisro critique the way he had set up the court system for the Jewish people and then suggesting a better way of doing it, Moses didn’t get upset or angry at him for “meddling”. Instead the Torah tells us that “Moses heeded the voice of his father-in-law, and did everything that he had said” (see Exodus 18:24). Wow! What honor Moses showed Yisro! What humility! And this from the greatest Jew to ever walk the planet!

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to Genesis 19:12, describes the relationship of a husband and wife to their respective in-laws based on the names the Torah uses for each of them. Referring to a son-in-law, the in-laws are called cho-sen and cho-senes (see, for example, Exodus 18:1), and he, chassan, while a daughter-in-law is called kallah (see Leviticus 20:12) and her in-laws, cha-miah and chamosah (see Genesis 38:25 and Ruth 1:14).

He explains that a daughter-in-law is generally a much more intimate member of their household than a son-in-law. With her husband she enters into and becomes one of the members of her husband’s parents’ household, they become her “encircling walls” (cha-miah derives from the word chomah, or “wall”) and she becomes the “crown” that “completes” their house (kallah also means “crown” and “completion”). The son-in-law, who, as a son, only extends the home of his parents, is only joined to his parents-in-law by what is of course the dearest bond, their daughter. This connection is not the merging of the one with the other, but is the mutual bond joining them together which affects the son-in-law and parents-in-law equally. They are accordingly joined together in the same relationships which chassan expresses, they become chassan, cho-sen and cho-senes to one another, a word which altogether expresses the connection of families by marriage, the “in-laws” (chassan is related to atan, meaning fine threads woven together).

There are two beautiful reasons given for the obligation to honor one’s in-laws that I would like to share with you.

The first comes from the Sefer Chareidim (an important 16th century commentary on the commandments and Kabbalistic theology written by Rabbi Elazar Azikri). He writes in Chapter 12 that one is obligated to honor one’s in-laws because the Kabbalah teaches that a husband and wife are considered like one body and one soul, so that the father and mother of this one is in reality the father and mother of this one. If my wife and I are soul mates united as one, then we share everything – even our parents. I am therefore obligated to honor and respect my spouse’s birth parents the same way I respect my own birth parents.

The second reason can be found in the Pele Yo’eitz, a beloved mussar (ethics) work written in encyclopedic format using the Hebrew alphabet by the great Sephardic sage, Rabbi Eliezer Papo, and first published in Constantinople in 1824. He writes (in the letter ches) that there is a tremendous obligation to honor one’s in-laws because they are the ones who spent precious years of their lives – not to mention untold amounts of money and resources – caring for and raising the person who now gives us so much and fulfills us in life and without whom we would have very little – the man or woman we married. The gratitude we owe to our in-laws obligates us to give them great honor and respect and to act to them as if we were an actual son or daughter.

Now I am not saying that every single father-in-law or mother-in-law is perfect and worthy of the kind of respect that Moses accorded his own father-in-law Yisro. And some in-laws act in ways that make it seem like they don’t deserve any respect in our eyes. After all, there is a reason why so many people are fond of telling in-law jokes all the time, including the following:

What’s the difference between in-laws and outlaws? Outlaws are wanted.

I got a Cadillac for my mother-in-law. Not a bad trade.

If you’re walking along the river and you see your mother-in-law and a lawyer drowning and you can only save one – which would you choose? Would it be dinner or a movie?

But no matter how lousy our in-laws might treat us, we must never forget that they gave us one of the greatest gifts we will ever receive – our spouse. And for that alone we gotta love ‘em!

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