Yitro’s counsel

When the celebrations in honor of Yitro’s arrival come to a close, Moses returns to his regular work of judging the people. Upon seeing this, Yitro counsels him that his system is inefficient: It is impossible to continue managing the people if Moses alone judges every person individually. An orderly judicial system must be established.

That it was necessary for Yitro to offer this counsel is puzzling. Our ancestors were not desert-dwelling bedouins who knew nothing about administration and judicial systems. The People of Israel did not come from the desert; they spent many years in Egypt, an organized country with a good deal of bureaucracy and a government with hundreds of years of experience in state administration. When a primitive tribal people form a state, it is unsurprising that they are unfamiliar with administration and judicial systems. Even when the State of Israel was established, only a few members of the first Knesset had parliamentary experience. Moses, however, grew up in Pharaoh’s palace. Throughout his childhood, he wandered around the royal court. He knew how to run a state, and Yitro’s advice was not new to him. Why, then, when he became the leader of the People of Israel, did Moses create a situation that was bound to fail? Why did he wait until Yitro came and gave him counsel to institute an organized legal system that was obviously necessary?

From a practical standpoint as well, it is not clear how Moses thought he would manage the people. After all, he had to lead an entire nation and guide millions of people in their individual lives, not to mention the special problems that inevitably arise. The reality of life is that people are bound to have difficulty sorting things out on their own, creating the need for an effective legal system. Yet under Moses’ leadership, the people had only one address for all of their problems. Life without quarrels is an impossibility, then as now. People will always find a way to fight with one another, even for no special reason.

Life without quarrels is an impossibility, then as now. People will always find a way to fight with one another, even for no special reason

In addition, Moses served not only as the people’s judge, but as their rabbi as well. Even without all the quarrels and disputes and even without all the monetary cases, it still would have been impossible for him to answer all of the people’s halakhic questions. Almost everyone has something to ask: whether a pot can be used for meat or for milk; whether a certain activity is prohibited or permitted on Shabbat; whether the text of a mezuza was written properly, etc. Even if one were to sit down to answer these questions day and night, it would not suffice.

There is a story about the daughter of the rabbi of a small community who, upon getting married, requested that a condition be added to the ketubah stating that her husband would not serve as a rabbi. Why? Because in her father’s home, from early in the morning until the middle of the night, there were always people around, and she did not want to go on living that way.

At the time of Parshat Yitro, the People of Israel numbered over 600,000 people. Even if each person only needed to ask a question once in a while, it would still add up to an enormous number of questions. Even if Moses were to answer each question with only a “yes” or a “no,” when this is multiplied by thousands, it still becomes impossible. In light of this great task that Moses accepted upon himself, it is hard to understand how he found time for anything else; even to greet his father-in-law, as he did at the beginning of the parshah, would have taken away precious time from his busy schedule.

Needless to say, such a situation is intolerable from the standpoint of the people as well. One can easily imagine the long line of people standing before Moses, and the interminable waiting time that we often associate with municipal offices.

How, then, could Moses have run things in this way?

“Would that all of G‑d’s people were prophets”

Apparently, Moses was not motivated by practical considerations but by a consideration stemming from an essentially different outlook. This case reflected a matter of principle for Moses. Moses and Yitro do not differ on the practical question of which method is more effective. Rather, they differ on whether it is at all appropriate to build a kind of hierarchical system within the Jewish people.

The implication of Yitro’s suggestion is the establishment of a system of ranks within the Jewish people: When a person has a question or problem, he must turn to the person who is in charge of him. This person, in turn, has his own superior in charge of him, and so forth through the hierarchy until the chain reaches Moses himself. Thus, a situation is created where there are people of higher rank and people of lower rank.

Moses, however, is not interested in such a structure – neither from the standpoint of his personal inclination nor in consideration of the matter itself.

We see Moses’ opposition to dividing the people by class or rank in other cases as well, such as the revelation at Sinai, when the People of Israel beckon to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but let not G‑d speak to us, lest we die.”1 In Deuteronomy this episode is described in greater detail, and there we see that this request is not a simple matter at all for Moses. In order to accept this idea, he had to receive confirmation from G‑d that indeed “they have spoken well.”2 For Moses, every Jew should aspire to the highest level. Ideally, Moses believes, every member of Israel should receive the Torah directly from the Almighty, as perfectly as he himself received it.

Moses responds similarly when Joshua runs to tell him that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. Moses responds, “Would that all of G‑d’s people were prophets.”3 He responds this way not out of politeness or humility, but because this is the way he sees things. Just as Eldad and Medad prophesied, Moses would like for there to be 600,000 such prophets.

The notion of an entire people that is “wise and understanding” is a basic tenet of our belief system

This is not just Moses’ personal desire; the Torah itself describes the Jewish people as follows: “This great nation is certainly a wise and understanding people.”4 The notion of an entire people that is “wise and understanding” is a basic tenet of our belief system. In almost every society and culture, a class distinction exists between the learned and the ignorant, and often is even considered an ideal social framework. The aspiration of the Jewish people, however, is quite the opposite. We believe that, ideally, everyone should be wise and understanding. Every member of Israel should reach the highest level possible. From this standpoint, there is a fundamental difference between the Jewish people and other societies. There is no point at which a Jew is told that he is no longer permitted to learn and understand more of the divine will. Even at Sinai, where G‑d spoke with Israel face to face, all of Israel were present, without any distinctions.

This principle appears frequently in our traditional texts, in various forms. Thus, for example, in Tanna DeVei Eliyahu: “I call upon heaven and earth to witness that whether it be a man or a woman, a servant or a maidservant, the holy spirit will come to rest on each of them according to his or her deeds.”5 Every human being, according to his deeds, can merit to attain a level at which the holy spirit rests upon him.

Moses does not set up an organized structure not because it does not occur to him, but because he does not want one

Moses’ policy is the principle that all the people are equal. In his view, a system of hierarchical rule would spell the ruin of the Jewish people’s equality. If, as none other than Korah proclaimed, “All the people in the community are holy, and G‑d is in their midst,”6 how can the people be divided into different ranks? Moses insisted on judging the people by himself because he thought that no person should be barred from approaching him directly as a result of a perceived inferiority. Why should any person be relegated to the “leaders of fifties” or the “leaders of thousands”?7 Every person is important enough to go directly to Moses. Moses does not set up an organized structure not because it does not occur to him, but because he does not want one. His argument is that if ranks are formed among the people, then although some people would become newly exalted leaders, many others would be rendered insignificant commoners, lowered and debased. All this runs counter to the view that “all the people in the community are holy, and G‑d is in their midst.”

Belief in the soul

The idea of establishing ranks within the Jewish people is so problematic to Moses that he is willing to bear not only his own personal suffering – “you will surely wear yourself out”8 – but also the system’s inevitable collapse. It is obvious that such a judicial and governmental system cannot endure; yet Moses tries to keep it going for as long as possible, because it is a matter of principle for him.

In practice, Yitro’s suggestion is implemented. Yitro thinks much more practically, and he recognizes that what Moses is trying to do is impossible. Behind his view, there is a great deal of common sense: How is it possible to create a nation where everyone is on the same level? The whole idea of equality is impractical. Similarly, an examination of the concept of democracy, which is based on the notion of equality, reveals that in fact it is illogical.

The truth is that democracy is an unrealistic system, an illogical ideology

This is an important point because in today’s Western world, “democracy” is taken for granted as an ideal that is prized over anything else. Yet the truth is that democracy is an unrealistic system, an illogical ideology. When a person has a stomach ache, he does not ask three different people for their opinions or go to the Knesset and take a vote in order to determine what to do. There could be 120 people sitting in the Knesset, all of whom are wise and discerning, but if they are opposed by one doctor, one relies on the doctor, not on the Knesset members. Common sense dictates that the opinion of the expert should be valued over the opinion of the masses.

This is true not only of medical questions, but of much larger questions as well. The idea that any ordinary person can decide complicated questions of international diplomacy or economic policy is fundamentally illogical. The idea that people are equal to one another in wisdom or ability is clearly false. People are not alike, whether in their height, in their appearance, or in their intelligence.

Nevertheless, in Moses’ case, the principle of equality springs from his belief in the soul, which is unconnected to the intellect or to reason. A soul is something abstract, spiritual, and above all, holy. On the plane of the soul there can be no criterion by which to determine who is higher and who is lower. As a result, it can truly be said that “all the people in the community are holy.”

No one is immune from question

The delegation of authority that results from Yitro’s counsel is basically technical, and the divisions between higher and lower judges are practical, not essential. It is true that the People of Israel are now arranged in different ranks. But when someone becomes a “leader of thousands,” this does mean that he is a hundred times wiser than a “leader of tens”; it could be that he is not wiser at all. In practice, we must establish ranks, because otherwise there will be chaos – “you will surely wear yourself out, as well as this people.”

One lesson we can learn from this is that, according to the Torah, there is no person who cannot be questioned; no one is immune. The Talmud says, “Even father and son, master and disciple – when they are engaged in Torah study, they become each other’s enemies.”9 The Talmud could have cited a much simpler example of this – that of two friends who study Torah together and begin arguing until the roof shakes. Yet the example cited is precisely that of father and son, or master and disciple, to teach us that although the son is obligated to honor his father, and although the disciple is obligated to honor his master, he does not have to agree with him. A person’s duty to honor his father and teachers means only that he must show them respect, not that he cannot question them.

Respect means that one must ask questions in a courteous manner, and if it is a public setting one must take care not to cause shame to the other. But this does not mean that there is anyone, in this generation or in any other generation, who is immune from question.

There is a famous dispute between Hillel and Shammai regarding the quantity of drawn water that renders a mikveh unfit for use, a dispute that was resolved only when two weavers entered from the Dung Gate and testified that Shemayah and Avtalyon had prescribed yet a third quantity.10 In this anecdote, the law was decided not in accordance with the views of the generation’s two leading sages, but with the opinion cited by two lowly weavers who came from the Dung Gate, one of the most contemptible places in Jerusalem.

Thus, the verse, “This great nation is certainly a wise and understanding people,” takes on a practical meaning. Everyone can ask questions, and no one is immune from them. Even if someone studies the Torah diligently, with understanding and in holiness for seventy years, this still does not mean that the Torah is in his hands and his hands alone.

“This great nation is certainly a wise and understanding people,” takes on a practical meaning. Everyone can ask questions, and no one is immune from them

In this respect, even after Yitro’s counsel was adopted, it established only a practical framework, not an essential one. Ultimately, the principle that Moses advocated remained the true philosophical construct underlying the essential framework of our society. If only it were possible, Moses’ original method of judging and answering questions would be implemented practically as well. All questions would come directly to Moses, whether it is a young child who found a piece of candy and wants to know if he must return it, or a tribal prince who seeks resolution for a territorial dispute. Reality has its limits and does not allow for such a system to survive. Nevertheless, this does not negate the intrinsic value of Moses’ system, only its practical viability. Even after the dust settled and Yitro’s system was put into place – and rightfully so – it is clear to us that, in truth, Moses’ way was right all along.