Lessons from Jethro

Jethro was Moshe’s father-in-law who came from his land of Midian and joined Am Yisrael who had just left Egypt and was on its way to the Promised Land, Eretz Yisrael.

Mount Sinai 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Mount Sinai 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As a foreword to the central story of Parshat Yitro, Maamad Har Sinai (“The Stand at Mount Sinai”) – which was the greatest historical event of all time, we read the story of Jethro.

Jethro was Moshe’s father-in-law who came from his land of Midian and joined Am Yisrael who had just left Egypt and was on its way to the Promised Land, Eretz Yisrael.
The day after Jethro arrives he sees a less-than-ideal situation in which Moshe Rabbeinu, the Jewish nation’s greatest leader, sits alone from morning to evening and judges the nation. Jethro understands that Moshe, as great a leader as he was, would not be able to withstand working at such a demanding job alone, so he turns to Moshe with the following criticism: Moses’s father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Exodus 18, 17-18) Jethro does not only offer criticism, but also suggests a practical organizational suggestion: creating a hierarchical justice system with one judge responsible for every 10 people at the base, and above them, judges for hundreds and for thousands.
Moshe Rabbeinu would be at the top of the entire hierarchy. This system, suggests Jethro to his son-in-law Moshe, would ease the great burden on him and have him dealing with only the most complicated of cases which the other judges did not succeed in solving. And indeed, Moshe Rabbeinu accepts his father-in-law’s suggestion and begins to create this wider justice system.
This story is surprising to the wise reader. Was Moshe Rabbeinu unaware of his own limitations? Did he actually think that he would succeed in judging the nation on his own long-term? It seems like we can learn an important message from Jethro’s suggestion. Moshe Rabbeinu, who was judging the nation from morning to night, was acting with unlimited dedication and devotion. He dedicated his entire self to the nation. This dedication prevented him from accurately forecasting the future when he would not be able to continue carrying the heavy burden of the nation. Only another person, an outsider, who was not acting out of devotion but was looking at reality objectively, could discern the danger in Moshe’s type of leadership. Moshe also recognized that this sort of objective view of reality was correct, and immediately upon hearing Jethro’s words, he changed the justice system and authorized many judges to help deal with the tremendous amount of work that had been his alone to deal with up to then.
This story teaches us about the importance of objective advice coming from a person who is not affected by strong feelings, even if those feelings are positive and important ones of devotion to the nation. But still we must understand: Why didn’t anyone from Am Yisrael recognize the faulty situation of Moshe Rabbeinu sitting alone and judging the entire nation? How is it that only Jethro, the outsider, managed to notice this? To understand this, we must look again at the words of Jethro who says to Moshe, “You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you.” We see that the danger that Jethro envisioned was not only Moshe wearing himself out due to the heavy burden on his shoulders, but that the entire nation would collapse as well. The existence of a great leader, especially one who is wholeheartedly devoted to the nation, can bring about the result of an irresponsible nation.
The feeling that a great leader like Moshe is supervising every action might take away from the simple people the sense of responsibility for their deeds, and this constituted a great danger.
This is what Jethro envisioned, as only he could, since the reality of Moshe Rabbeinu judging the entire nation on his own led to the nation’s complacency, to the security of thinking there is someone “taking care of things.” In a situation like that, we can understand why no one tried to see if things were being conducted in the best possible way. Only an outsider who did not feel the protection of Moshe’s leadership could discern the dangers inherent in it and advise how to avoid them.
This message is true for everyone, especially anyone privileged to be the parent of children. Alongside the tremendous investment that we must invest in imparting the right values to our children, we must also give them some independence.
A little less control in every aspect of their lives will give them the ability to analyze reality and recognize dangers.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.