From the Outside Looking In
In this week’s Torah reading, Yitro, the Israelites receive the Torah from God on Mt. Sinai. It’s the defining moment of the birth of the Jewish people; the acceptance of God’s commandments and the creation of the covenant between God and the people. It’s a moment filled with trumpets and loud noises, fire and brimstone, thunder and lightning–all of the fanfare and drama that would go along with such an event.
When we read the Aseret haDibrot, commonly translated as “The Ten Commandments,” in synagogue, we stand, imagining that we, ourselves, were standing at Sinai for this revelation. It’s one of those major, “once in a lifetime” events, and it’s so monumental–so overwhelming–that the people become afraid and ask Moses to hear what God has to say, and then tell them.
Because the parashah contains this momentous event, everything else is in danger of getting lost. One of those things is the fact that the reading is named for Yitro/Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. Yitro’s purpose in coming was to bring Moses’ family to him; his wife Tzipora and sons Gershom and Eliezer, to join him. But while they’re visiting, Yitro sees that Moses is spending pretty much all of his time settling disputes and “inquiring of God” on behalf of the people.
Yitro is concerned, and says, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” He then suggests what became a model for the US court system; Moses would appoint judges over “thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens,” and only the most difficult cases would come before him. Moses took this advice and created this system, for his own well-being and that of the people.
Reading the plain text, it sounds like Moses accepts Yitro’s advice and follows it, but at least one commentator suggests that Moses feels criticized by Yitro. “What is this thing you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone?” And Moses replies, in a tone that could be considered stating the obvious, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God.” Perhaps Moses is the only person who the people can come to; after all, he’s the only one we know of to whom God speaks! But his response suggests that he’s on the defensive, and perhaps realizes that Yitro is right; he’s too involved with what he’s doing to take a step back and reassess.
I’m sure we’ve all been on both ends of this conversation; while we may realize that what we’re currently doing isn’t working as well as we’d like, when someone else points it out, we can become defensive. And when we can see how someone else’s actions aren’t as efficient or as positive as we think they could be, we offer advice and risk a negative reaction.
Why did the Torah record this interchange between Moses and Yitro? Why didn’t God step in and take some of the burden off of Moses? Having this advice come from Yitro, a non-Israelite and an in-law, we learn that it’s hard to see the trees in the middle of the forest; it takes someone on the outside to remind us. It also teaches that one who wise is one who is open to learning from everyone.