The Dark Side of Judaism”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In our previous studies of parashat Yitro 5760-2000, we spoke of Israel’s encounter with Jethro and the non-Jewish world. Through the example of Jethro, the Torah teaches that there is much to learn from the non-Jewish world and that Jews must not be dismissive of ideas, simply because their origins are non-Jewish.

In parashat Yitro, we learn that Jethro is given a royal welcome by Moses when he arrives from Midian, together with Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, and Moses’ two sons. Jethro, who had spent most of his life as a pagan priest in Midian, notices how Moses sits in judgment of the Jewish people from morning until evening. Jethro admonishes his son-in-law, Moses, saying (Exodus 18:14): “Mah ha’davar ha’zeh ah’sher ah’tah o’seh lah’ahm, ma’doo’ah ah’tah yo’shayv l’vah’deh’chah v’chol ha’ahm nee’tzav ah’leh’chah min boker ahd ah’rev?” What is this thing that you do to the people? Why do you sit alone with all the people standing by you from morning until evening?

To explain his actions, Moses tells Jethro that it is his function to adjudicate matters that come up between the litigants and decide the law. Jethro warns Moses that what he is doing is not good. Deciding everything alone will wear Moses out, as well as the people. Says Jethro, “This matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone.”

Jethro then advises Moses to establish a representative judicial system, with leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens, who will judge the people at all times and bring only the major matters to Moses. It is only in this manner, says Jethro, that you, Moses, will be able to endure, and the entire people shall arrive at their destination in peace.

In our previous analysis of this encounter, we noted the revolutionary nature of the Torah, refusing to dismiss good advice that comes from non-Jewish sources, and prominently featuring the advice of a gentile in the Torah. However, what is far more fascinating than featuring Jethro’s advice, is the Torah’s portrayal of Moses as inefficiently and ineffectively sitting in judgment of the Jewish people.

Surely, the Torah could have simply stated that, soon after his arrival, Jethro advised Moses how to set up an effective judicial system. But the Torah does not do so. Instead, Scripture adds the very juicy, negative description of Moses’ failings as a judge, implying that Moses was either unwilling to share the limelight with others or felt that the others were simply not sufficiently competent to do the job properly. In any case, the Torah portrays Moses’ initial judicial activities as a great failure.

The Torah surely could have conveyed its important message, without emphasizing the failure of Moses.

This, of course, is not the first time the Torah shows the dark side of Moses. In Exodus 3:18, G-d tells Moses that the people will listen to him. Moses, however, rebuts G-d in  Exodus 4:1 by saying, “But, they will not believe me, nor hearken to my voice!” So much for the perfect, sensitive leader.

Moses is again portrayed (Exodus 33:19) as having lost his temper when he beholds the Israelites dancing and rejoicing around the Golden Calf. In anger, Moses casts down and shatters the tablets containing the holy Ten Commandments.

Moses, again, in the late stages of his life, loses his patience with the Jewish people and demands of them (Numbers 20:10): “Hear now you rebels, will we surely take water out of this stone?” Instead of speaking to the stone, Moses hits the stone, bringing great punishment upon himself, and losing the right to enter the Promised Land.

The great leader Moses, the greatest leader of all times, is depicted by Scripture as being a truly fallible person.

But Moses is not the only one that the Torah portrays in a negative light. Abraham, the great religious leader, expels his wife and young child from his home into the barren wilderness, with only a morsel of bread and a flask of water (Genesis 21:14). King David is accused by the prophet Nathan of being a murderer when he has Batsheva’s husband placed on the front lines, so that David will be able to marry the beautiful widow (II Samuel 12:7-9). The prophet Jonah is excoriated for refusing to fulfil the Divine request to bear the message of repentance to the people of Nineveh, and for trying, unsuccessfully, to flee from G-d (Jonah 4:10-11).

Not only does the Torah revolutionize theology by declaring that Jewish religious leaders are fallible, it goes much further, frequently highlighting the shortcomings of Judaism’s greatest religious leaders. This is so very different from what is portrayed by other faith systems, where religious leaders are infallible and never depicted as mistaken or ever saying or doing anything wrong.

Judaism shows the dark side of its great leaders because Judaism is of the belief that religious constituents can learn much from the shortcomings of their leaders and the fallibilities of great people. Judaism appreciates that real life is not about fantasies and false idyllic portraits. It prefers true-to-life models, rather than paradigms of perfection that can never be replicated by others.

We see then that the dark side may really be a light side. It is a most effective way to educate mortals, who are fallible, to inspire them to self-improvement. These lessons are unique in the annals of human history. We must be proud that we have a share in these immortal lessons, and seek to emulate them in our own life experiences.

May you be blessed.

On Wednesday night and Thursday, January 19th and 20th, we celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel, it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat species of fruit that grow in the land of Israel.