Friday, January 25, 2008

The Gift of Yitro

Last week, the Jews crossed the Red Sea. This week, they come to Sinai and hear the Ten Commandments. But before we get to Sinai, the storyline is interrupted. Our parsha begins with the visit of Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, who reunites Moshe with his family and suggests that the Jews set up a judicial system to alleviate Moshe’s workload. It is only after Yitro returns home to Midian that the parsha turns to the national preparations for the revelation at Sinai and then finally climaxes with the Ten Commandments.

The Yitro interlude is odd on several levels. First of all, we are in the middle of telling the Exodus story here – why allow visiting relatives to interrupt? (The Torah is not religious about keeping things chronological; this story could have easily been saved for later.) Moreover, why do we need a Midianite to come up with the idea of hiring judges? The Jews are a smart people; they couldn’t think of this one on their own? And if this really is such a good idea, why didn’t God tell them to do it? Lastly, why is this most important parsha named for Yitro? Is this merely coincidental? Or does it allude to something deeper?

It seems that, somehow, Sinai needed Yitro. Yitro must have contributed something that made the Ten Commandments possible, something that could not have come from anyone else besides him. Now we need to figure out what that thing was.

When Yitro arrives, he sees crowds of Jews standing in line all day waiting to receive guidance from Moshe. Yitro recognizes the inefficiency of this system and he offers Moshe some constructive criticism.

“What you are doing is not good! You are going to wear yourself out, along with the people that are with you. Your responsibility is too great. You cannot do it alone.
“Now listen to me. I will give you advice, and God will be with you. You must be God’s representative for the people, and bring [their] concerns to God. Clarify the decrees and laws [for the people]. Show them the path they must take and the things they must do.
“But you must [also] seek out from among all the people competent, God-fearing men – men of truth, who hate injustice. You must then appoint them [over the people] as leaders… Let them administer justice for the people…”

Shemot 18:17-22

It seems simple enough. Moshe and the Jews like the idea (Devarim 1:12-14), God concurs (Shemot 17:23-24) and it’s a done deal. But this concept of judges is actually a lot more radical, and a lot more dangerous, than we imagine.

[Moshe said to the people,] “Your personal interests decided this matter for you. You should have said, ‘Our master Moshe, from whom is it preferable to learn? From you or from your student? Isn’t it [better to learn] from you, since you suffered for it?’ But I know what you were thinking. You said to yourselves, ‘Now that they’ll be appointing many judges over us, if [a judge] doesn’t favor us, we’ll give him a gift and he will favor us.’”

Sifrei 14; Rashi to Devarim 1:14

Taking the law out of Moshe’s hands creates a weakness in the system. While Moshe’s integrity is unassailable and the authenticity of his rulings is unquestioned, the same cannot be said for every judge. To ask Moshe to delegate was something no Jew would ever dare to do. It took Moshe’s father-in-law, an outsider whose reverence for Moshe did not approach those who witnessed the Exodus, to suggest the hiring of judges. The Jews went along with it; but even that was cause for rebuke.

Let’s turn now to the Ten Commandments. From a safe distance of three millennia, it is easy for us to romanticize the Revelation at Sinai. What could be more beautiful than experiencing God? However, for the Jews who were there, there was nothing romantic about it. It was terrifying and traumatic, and they begged Moshe to make it stop.

“Today we have seen that when God speaks to man, he can still survive. Now, why should we die? Why should this great fire consume us? If we hear the voice of God our Lord anymore, we will die!”

Devarim 5:21-22

The Jews desperately wanted the revelation to stop, but they were also interested in what God had to say. They came up with a plan and presented it to Moshe.

“You approach and listen to all God our Lord says. You can then tell us whatever God our Lord tells you, and when we hear it, we will do it.”

Ibid 5:24

It seems that the Jews would have heard more directly from God, but it was too much for them to take. Frightened that they would die, the Jews interrupted the transmission and asked that instead Moshe serve as their ambassador. God was not upset by this proposal; on the contrary, He seconds the plan in this communication to Moshe.

“I have heard what this nation has said to you. They have spoken well. If only their hearts would always remain this way, where they are in such awe of Me…
“Go tell them to return to their tents. You, however, must remain here with Me and I will tell you all the mitzvot, decrees and laws that you shall teach them…”

Ibid 5:25-28

The idea was a good one; in fact, it was exactly what God had intended. God wanted the Torah to be transmitted orally through Moshe, for that was to be the primary method of Torah transmission for all time. But this could not happen by divine decree; the Jews had to come up with this idea on their own.

To God’s mind, this was a primary purpose of the revelation. The Jews needed to feel the heat and experience for themselves why Torah requires humans – prophets, sages and rabbis – to serve as intermediaries. But the Jews would never have dared tell God to delegate – if not for Yitro.

Yitro introduced the radical idea that Judaism is not just about faith in God; it is about faith in man. In order for Torah and its justice system to function, trusting humans is necessary. Indeed, this is a central tenant of Judaism. Trust Jews. Our religion depends on it.


  1. Great analysis, Rabbi Gordon.

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks had an interesting observation that supports your point - there are only two instances in the Torah where we are told specifically that something is "lo tov" (not good).

    God - "it is not good for man to be alone."

    Yitro - "What you are doing is not good!"

    Thus, as it is existentially not good for man to BE alone, so is it not good for man to LEAD alone.

    Shabbat Shalom!

  2. Yitro rebuked Moses. His rebuke was both beneficial and constructive, meeting the tests of rebuke. Also, the assumption was made that it was given in private, directly to Moses.

    The one thing lacking in this rebuke, which is not necessary for a man as holy as Moses, is a preliminary statement to Moses praising him for his work in judging the people.
    For most humans, this is a necessity in order to prevent a "natural" negative response to a person's suggestions.