Why was he called Yitro (“his addition”)? Because he added a chapter to the Torah—[the chapter] “And you should see [to choose] from the people . . .”
Shemot Rabbah 27:7
If you see more deeply into me than I am capable of seeing into myself, which is the real me? The deeper and truer me that you see, or my me? This was the essence of a debate between Moses and the people of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai, and between Moses and his father-in-law, Jethro, in the aftermath of the revelation.
The Torah was communicated to us through Moses; indeed, the prophet (Malachi 3:22) goes so far as to refer to the word of G‑d as Moses’ Torah. On several occasions, however, other individuals are given credit for the revelation of a particular section.
Thus we are told that the section dealing with laws of the Second Passover (Numbers 9:6–14), which came as G‑d’s response to a group of Jews who were ritually impure yet refused to reconcile themselves to the fact that they could not participate in the Passover offering, ought to have been related by Moses, like the rest of the Torah, but that these people merited that it be revealed by their initiative. The same is said regarding the laws of inheritance (Numbers 27:6–11), whose revelation was prompted by the daughters of Tzelafchad, the penalty for desecrating Shabbat (Numbers 15:35–36) prompted by the wood-gatherer, etc.
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, is also credited with a section of Torah. Indeed, his name (Yitro in the Hebrew, meaning “his addition”) was given him because he added a chapter to the Torah.
In this, the case of Jethro is unique. In all other instances, nothing was added to the Torah—these were laws that would have been included in the Torah in any case, for without them the Torah is not complete; it was only that instead of being communicated directly to Moses as was the rest of the Torah, certain individuals had the merit to be involved in the process of their revelation. Only Jethro’s section is referred to as an “addition”—something that would not have been part of the Torah were it not for his initiative. In other words, the Torah was complete without this section, and Jethro added something to it.
What was Jethro’s addition? What did it contribute to our understanding of the divine wisdom?
When Jethro arrived in the Israelite camp, he was shocked to discover that Moses was serving as a one-man educational and judicial system for a community of several million souls. “Why do you sit alone,” he asked his son-in-law, “and the entire people stand about you from morning till evening?”
Moses replied: “The people come to me to seek G‑d. When they have a matter of dispute, they come to me, and I judge between a man and his fellow. I teach them the laws of G‑d and His instructions.”
Said Jethro: “It is not good, this thing that you are doing. You will wither away, both you and this people who are with you . . . you cannot do this alone.” Jethro went on to suggest that Moses select from among the people able men, those that fear G‑d, men of truth, who abhor profit, and appoint them as arbiters and judges.
According to Jethro’s plan, Moses would continue to teach the people “the laws and the instructions . . . the path they should follow, and the deeds they should do.” But the application of these laws to the daily life of the camp, the resolution of questions and the settlement of disputes, should be delegated to these men. “They shall judge the people at all times: the great matters they shall present to you, and the minor things they shall arbitrate themselves.”
Moses accepted and implemented Jethro’s plan, appointing captains of thousands, captains of hundreds, captains of fifties and captains of tens. The people were themselves entrusted with the application of the divine law to their daily lives, while Moses confined his role to teaching them the laws and deciding the most difficult issues.
A Reluctant Mouthpiece
A similar thing occurred when the people of Israel assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from G‑d.
The divine voice pronounced the first two of the Ten Commandments (“I am G‑d . . .” and “you shall have no other gods . . .”). But the people felt that they were incapable of receiving a direct communication from G‑d. “You approach,” they begged Moses, “and hear all that the L-rd our G‑d will say. You tell us all that the L-rd our G‑d will say to you, and we will listen and do.”
Moses was deeply disappointed to hear this: it was his desire that the people should receive the entire Torah directly from the mouth of G‑d. But G‑d said to him: “I have heard the words that the people have spoken to you; they have spoken well . . .” Go say to them: Return to your tents. And you remain here with Me, and I shall relate to you the commandment, the statutes and the laws which you shall teach them . . .” (Deuteronomy 5:20–28; Rashi to 5:24; cf. Exodus 20:16)
A simple reading of the exchange between G‑d and Moses may lead to the conclusion that Moses was overestimating his people, expecting from them something that was beyond their capacity. This, however, does not fit in with what we know about Moses’ leadership. Our sages describe Moses as a faithful shepherd, sensitive to the individual needs of every member of his flock.
The chassidic masters therefore understand what happened at Sinai as far more complex than a simple overestimation on Moses’ part. On the contrary: Moses perceived their true and ultimate potential, and as a true leader, his deepest desire was to actualize it. In Moses’ eyes, the people of Israel were capable of assimilating the highest revelations; under his leadership, they could actually have achieved this.
But the people did not want to relate to G‑d on this level. They wanted to receive the Torah with their own, self-actualized faculties, not with the sublime powers that Moses could summon forth from the depths of their souls. They wanted that their experience of Torah should be true to how they are to themselves, rather than how Moses sees them—even if what Moses saw in them was their “deeper” and “truer” self.
G‑d agreed with the people. After having been exposed to the divine essence of Torah (as contained within the first two commandments), they would receive the Torah not as a supernal voice from heaven, but as ideas formulated in a human mind, as words articulated by a human mouth and put in writing by a human hand. They would receive the Torah via the mind, mouth and pen of Moses.
In light of this, we can understand the difference between Moses’ approach and that of Jethro, which is the same debate between Moses and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai—but on a different level.
[There are different opinions among the sages and commentaries as to whether Jethro’s arrival at the Israelite camp was before or after the revelation at Sinai. However, the exchange between Moses and Jethro regarding the administration of Torah law in the Israelite camp appears to have taken place after Sinai—see Mechilta on Exodus 18:13; Rashi ad loc.; Talmud, Zevachim 116a and Pesachim 6b. See, however, Daat Zekeinim MiBaalei HaTosafot to Exodus 18:13.]
The dialogue between Moses and the people at Mount Sinai centered on the question of how the people of Israel should receive the divine communication; in that debate, G‑d decided that they should receive it via a human teacher, Moses, rather than as a direct divine revelation. The issue between Moses and Jethro was: Having learned the divine laws from Moses, how were the people to implement them in their daily lives? How were these divine laws to be translated into guidance for raising a child, righting a troubled marriage, or resolving a dispute between neighbors?
One might go to Moses. He received these laws from G‑d; his knowledge and understanding of them is absolute. His application of them is certain to be the clearest, most unequivocal rendition of the divine law.
It is true that Moses is a million miles away from the petty neighbors’ dispute he is being troubled to resolve. But it is also true that the two litigants standing before him are certain to be elevated by the experience. In the presence of Moses, they too are capable of rising above the pettiness of their conflict. In the presence of Moses, they too are capable of relating to the pure principle being expounded, and of applying it to their relations back in their neighborhood.
This was how it was done, until Jethro arrived in the Israelite camp.
Jethro was an outsider—a convert to Judaism. According to some opinions, he was not even present at the revelation at Mount Sinai. Moses saw the people of Israel from the inside—in the light of their highest potentials, from the perspective of the inner core of their souls as they are one with his in the singular soul of Israel. Jethro saw them from the outside—their everyday selves, their petty cares and conflicts. He saw them as they are apart from Moses, while Moses saw them only as they are in the presence of Moses.
So he suggested to Moses that the people of Israel learn to govern themselves, to arbitrate their disputes, to apply the laws of Torah to their lives. Moses was to remain the sole source of these laws, but their implementation was to be achieved by a multi-tiered body of magistrates and counselors at every level of the community (captains of tens, captains of hundreds, etc.). This way, the divine law would permeate their lives on every level, not only at the apogee of their being.
This is what Jethro added to the Torah. Without his addition, the Torah was complete. Indeed, there was no real need for Jethro’s system—at least, not for as long a Moses lived in their midst—for Moses could always be counted on to raise the lives of his people to the level on which he expounded the word of G‑d. But their understanding and practice of Torah would have remained something that Moses had empowered them to attain, not something they had attained on their own. Jethro’s system made the Torah the personal achievement of every Jew.
More significantly, Jethro’s initiative was accepted and implemented by Moses, and written into the Torah. Were it not for Jethro, the Torah would have remained Moses’ Torah—a guide to life for Moseses, and for Moses-elevated Jews. After Moses’ passing, a system such as Jethro’s would have been established, to bring down Moses’ Torah to a lesser generation. But Jethro insisted that Moses delegate of his capacity to interpret the Torah to the sages of his generation, and by extension, to the sages of all generations.
Because it was Moses who established this system, it was incorporated as a section in Torah, making it an integral part of the divine communication to man.
Therein lies the enormousness of Jethro’s contribution. Because he added this chapter into the Torah, the Jew who studies and lives Torah today is relating to the divine original rather than to a human interpretation.
Thus the Talmud states: “Everything that a qualified student of Torah is destined to originate was already given to Moses at Sinai.” The Talmud refers to the student’s achievement as original (a chiddush), yet says that it was already given to Moses! In other words, for an interpretation to be an authentic part of Torah, it must derive from the authority of Moses. Yet Moses—having accepted Jethro’s approach—transmitted the Torah to us in such a way that enables our understanding of it to be our own achievement, and at the same time, the unadulterated word of G‑d.