(photo credit: Rembrandt)
‘You must be the representative of the nation to God; and you shall bring their issues to God’ (Exodus 18:19)
The most seminal event in Jewish history, the miracle which informed, inspired and inflamed our people with passionate commitment to ethical monotheism, was the Revelation at Sinai. How strange that the biblical portion which details this phenomenon is named Yitro – after Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, a Midianite priest. What did Jethro / Yitro do to deserve such a signal honor?
The Bible records Jethro’s contribution even before it gives us the content of the Revelation. According to Rashi, who cites the Sifrei, our text changes the chronological order by providing Jethro’s advice for a judicial structure even before Moses had begun to judge the Israelites’ disputes according to the legal code they had yet to receive. Apparently the Torah believes that Jethro’s advice was crucial in order for the Divine Law to be implemented in daily life.
What did Jethro teach Moses and Israel? Jethro sees his son-in-law standing every day from morning to evening, judging the various disputes of the Hebrews who come “to seek out God,” deciding “between a person and his neighbor,” informing each of “the statutes of God and His laws” (Exodus 18:13-16). The Midianite sheikh, speaking from a lifetime of experience, recognizes an impossible situation: “What you are doing is not good; you will wear yourself out as well as this nation that is with you”; You will never manage to deal with the enormous case load alone, and the people will grow impatient waiting in line! (ibid, 17-19).
Jethro then suggests that Moses find “men of valor, God-fearing people of truth who despise ill-gotten gain” who will establish district courts. These people, financially and constitutionally able to resist the pressures of the wealthy and powerful, will arbitrate the daily disputes which can plague a nation committed to compassionate righteousness and moral justice.
But Jethro does much more than design a more manageable judicial “pecking order”; he actually defines Moses’s position as leader, setting the stage for the Hebraic version of Plato’s philosopher king. Moses understood the paramount importance of the Law for the development of the people. He also recognized that since God had chosen him as the Lawgiver, each Israelite experienced personal contact with him as if it were contact with God. Moses was willing to stand from morning to night adjudicating individual cases because he realized that each client was actually “seeking God” (ibid 15).
Jethro understands that such a situation can never last. He therefore explains to his son-in-law that he does not have the luxury of leading like a Rebbe
, who deals with each individual and their problems; instead, he must lead like a Rav
– an exalted teacher who brings the Divine Word to the nation as a whole, and serves as its interlocutor and defense attorney before God.
Moses must speak with the voice of the Divine, and his mouth must express the words and will of the Divine; “clarify the decrees and the laws for [the nation] and show them the path they must take and the things they must do” (ibid 19, 20). He must be Moshe Rabbenu, a halachic teacher, guide and king who operates wholesale rather than retail; a Rav and Torah teacher for all generations, rather than a Rebbe for the individuals of one generation. Such a vocation would make Moses a man of God (Ish Ha-Elohim
) rather than a man of the people. It might lead to more criticism, and even to impudent and ungrateful rebellions, but it would allow him more time with God and enable his intellect to fuse with the Intellect of the Divine (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed
There was one detail in which Moses differed from Jethro. The Midianite
priest suggested that all the great (big) matters be brought to Moses,
and all small matters be judged by lesser courts (ibid 22); Moses
re-interpreted his words to state that the difficult issues be brought
to him whereas the simpler cases be judged by the magistrates.
Moses taught that the highest court was needed for the difficult
questions of Law, but not necessarily for simpler cases which happened
to involve a great deal of money. As Moses initially explained to God,
he was a man of weighty, theological and religio-legal speech rather
than someone given to small talk. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.