Behaalotecha: The High Priest of Midian

Call me Chovav—or Jethro, or Reuel, who cares? I go by many names. I strive to be modest, but, truly, I am a vital part of the Israelite Saga. As Jethro, I was High Priest of Midian. One night, a dusty, travel-worn, exhausted refugee named Moses escaped from the slavery hellhole of Ramesses II, and found his way to my door, doubtless with the help of the Desert God about Whom he is constantly nattering. My own, dear Zipporah, eldest of my daughters, took pity on him and, after drawing water for his parched throat and belly, brought him to our home. After the ragamuffin washed himself, his manly beauty captured Zipporah’s heart. Myself, I thought him somewhat thin and nearly as old as I, but I kept silent.

And so, Zipporah and Moses were married, by me, in my capacity as—ahem—High Priest of Midian. She swiftly gave birth to two sons. My son-in-law had a habit of gazing off to the distant mountains for—inspiration? (I have always thought Moses a bit demented, but said nothing to my daughter.) He named the elder Gershom, for, as he told me, “I am a stranger in a strange land,” and Elazar, for, “My Desert God has aided me.” No word of thanks to me for rescuing him from certain death, either at the hands of Pharaoh’s troops, or by his wasting away in the wilderness—oh, well. Moses is not the sort of fellow to acknowledge aid from mere mortals; his eyes are continually turned heavenward, where his Mysterious Deity dwells—or so he tells me. I have heard of sky-gods before; my Baal is one of them. At least, Old Baal can be trusted to bring thunder, lightning, and the healing rain for our crops.

One day, the rapscallion departed: “I must free my people,” he announced to me, and, after Zipporah packed him a lunch of matzos and butter, he was gone. I was able to hear of his exploits from the caravaneers and merchant folk who passed through our territory. I was, finally, glad to hear of the Israelites’ miraculous deliverance by their Lord God. Immediately,  I bundled up Zipporah and the boys, and set out to find my arrant son-in-law: it was about time to re-unite their family, and the boys were eating up all of my winter stores.

I found him seated before a veritable sea of Israelites—they called him “rabbi,” which means teacher, prophet, tribal leader, commander-in-chief, among other things—I cannot remember them all. Still, as a civil magistrate of much experience myself, I could see that he was wasting himself away with overwork, never taking a day off.. Day and night the people stood before him, for questions ranging from whether a chicken was kosher, to the highest cases of law, involving property, passion, or pelf.

There he sat, beneath a jury-rigged sheet, meant to ward off the desert sun. It wasn’t working; his skin was nut-brown, and Old Sol was beating down on his baldy head. He looks old and unhealthy, I remember thinking. He precariously perched on a battered, tumbledown chair meant as a throne for the Prophet of the One True God, but, truly, he looked ludicrous. I remember that the chair had been decorated with gold and silver paint, which was cracked and crazed. There were cherubim on both sides, and a chipped bas-relief of Anubis gazed balefully over the Prophet’s left shoulder.

“What is this you are doing, Son-in-Law?” I queried, after pushing my way to front of the line, elbowing aside a cobbler and a tinsmith who yammered loudly of problems relating to adultery.

He sighed, and managed a careworn smile. “The people gather before me for legal, familial, and emotional advice,” he answered, “and I have no recourse but to sit here in judgment, night and day, and answer their questions. The arrangement seems to be working,” he said, but wavered somewhat, as if sunstruck.

“It doesn’t seem effective—at least, not to me,” I retorted.

My mooncalf son-in-law gazed upward to a nearby cloud where, I assumed, his Deity was seated, watching, listening, and judging. “If I cannot answer their questions, Father Jethro,” he replied, “I turn to the Lord God, and He supplies the answer. But it’s mostly me.”

I took him by his skinny, sunburnt arm, lifted him from his Throne of Judgment, and led him away behind a terebinth. Well, what a chorus of cat music rose up from the crowd! But I ignored them.

“Look here, Moses, my boy,” I said, striving to get him to turn away from his Vision-in-the-Sky, and down to more earthly matters,  “You know, faced with a similar situation in Midian, I found an easy solution—perhaps Baal the Thunderer supplied it to me: appoint judges of fifties, of twenties, and of tens—that way, you have a good chance of some sub-magistrate down the line finding the chicken kosher, while you can confine your efforts and wisdom to weightier matters.”

I was happy to see him, in the coming days and weeks, apply my advice, and with good results.

Now, he asks me if I would care to accompany him and his ragtag agglomeration of Semitic humanity deeper into the desert—no, thank you, Moses. Having seen what turmoil has arisen thus far from your people’s haphazard interactions with God, I long to return to my little town of Midian, where a man may worship, judge, and cogitate according to his conscience, not under the steady gaze and judgment of a demanding, Invisible Deity.

Farewell, Moses and you lot! You will see me no more. Have a care to treat my Zipporah well—I have yet to see you take a day off; indeed, I worry about the stability of your marriage.. And your two boys, Baal pity them, fled long ago into the world; I pray for their safety and good health. Truly, it is not easy to be a judge of your people Israel; they are a headstrong, rebellious mob, indeed.

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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