The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
The Torah portion Yitro is best known for the theophany at Mount Sinai, God’s revelation of the Ten Commandments to Moses and the people of Israel. If the Exodus story is about the physical birth of the Jewish people, Sinai represents the spiritual birth of the Jewish people.
A sacred and eternal covenant is established. Jews are no longer just a collection of tribes, but partners with God who will introduce a new kind of religion — ethical monotheism — to the world.
Yet this week’s parashah begins with something else, something often overlooked but deeply important to Jewish history.
In Exodus 18:1, we see Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law and a Midianite priest, take an active role in the Jewish story. He brings Moses, who has been away from his family for some time, his wife and two sons. Moses bows to Jethro, kisses him, and then recounts the Exodus narrative.
Jethro — a gentile — rejoices in the liberation of the Israelites: “’Blessed be the Lord,’ Jethro said, ‘who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods …’” (Ex. 18:11)
After reuniting Moses with his family, celebrating the deliverance of the Jewish people and proclaiming the triumph of monotheism, Jethro inserts himself into the Jewish story once again.
When Jethro observes Moses trying to resolve disputes among his people by himself “from morning until evening” (Ex. 18:13), he takes initiative and offers a better strategy, both for the preservation of Moses’ well-being and for the long-term health of the community.
“What is this thing that you are doing to the people?” Jethro asks his son-in-law. “Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” (Ex. 18:14)
In some ways, Jethro’s question sounds almost accusatory. He goes on:
“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” (Ex. 18:17-18). Perhaps Jethro is saying not only that Moses cannot judge alone, but that he should not.
Is Jethro simply looking out for Moses, or is he also — and possibly more — concerned that by having only one person function as the sole adjudicator and supreme authority of the Jewish people, the community might slide into autocracy?
Whatever his intention, Jethro’s instinct is moral and his recommendation is wise.
Jethro advises Moses to select among the best and the brightest of his people and appoint them as judges, so that they, along with Moses, will resolve disputes and make decisions about conflicts that could prove damaging to the social cohesion of this newly liberated people.
That a non-Jew challenges Moses’ leadership style over his people is noteworthy. But the fact that Jethro goes further, establishing and shaping the Israelite judicial system, is remarkable.
Without Jethro’s guidance, how could the Jewish people have efficiently and effectively carried out the Biblical mandate “Justice, justice shall you pursue”? (Deuteronomy 16:20) Without Jethro’s wisdom, how could this rebellious, contentious people have lived together in the desert?
Many scholars think that this section of the Torah portion likely occurred after the revelation at Sinai (two chapters later), despite its appearance at the beginning of the parashah. If so, perhaps the editors of the Torah inserted it at the start to make a point.
It takes many different kinds of people, with different sorts of ideas and skills, to build a nation.
The Jewish people, throughout our history, have always learned from, been influenced by and worked with those from other nations and faith traditions.
The Jewish people are not an island. Nor should we be. Let us avoid the dangers of parochialism and continue to build bridges with our friends and neighbors, our modern-day Jethros.