“Striving as a Jewish Ideal”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law advises Moses to delegate authority when he sits in judgment of the people. As a result, the hierarchal system of the Jewish judiciary was established.

After seeing the multitudes of people descending on Moses for advice and judgment, Jethro warns his son-in-law, Moses, that he has taken too much upon himself. Jethro, therefore, suggests: Exodus 18:21, וְאַתָּה תֶחֱזֶה מִכָּל הָעָם אַנְשֵׁי חַיִל, יִרְאֵי אֱ־לֹקִים, אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת, שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע, וְשַׂמְתָּ עֲלֵהֶם שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים, שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת , And you [Moses] shall discern from among the entire people, men of accomplishment, G-d fearing people, men of truth, who hate unjust gain, and you shall appoint them leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens. As a result, 78,600 leaders were later chosen to assist Moses in the judicial system.

Jethro’s contributions to the Jewish people are highly regarded. Rabbinic literature abounds with praise for the former High Priest of Midian, who influenced the Jewish judicial process so profoundly.

Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus presents many important insights in his erudite commentary on the Torah, Tiferet Shimshon, regarding the contributions that Jethro made.

At first blush, says Rabbi Pincus, the idea of a judicial hierarchy does not seem so revolutionary. In fact, it seems rather obvious that a judge, or any person who is charged with significant responsibilities, should seek help.

Rabbi Pincus suggests that the reason Jethro’s recommendations are considered so important is because the man, Moses, could not be compared to other mortals. Given his very special talents, it surely would have been possible for him to bear the burden of judging all the people. The Torah even calls Moses (Deuteronomy 33:1), אִישׁ הָאֱ־לֹקִים , a man of G-d. Furthermore, the people certainly would have preferred to be judged by Moses rather than anyone else. But, had Moses judged alone, suggests Rabbi Pincus, the special talents of Moses could not have been replicated in future generations. Not only would all subsequent leaders be of lesser stature, it would have discouraged all non-exceptional people from aspiring to be great in Torah and personal sanctity, fear of Heaven or to become a leader in Israel.

Jethro’s proposal taught that leaders do not have to be perfect, in fact everyone can be a leader according to his ability– officers of thousands, officers of hundreds, officers of fifty and officers of tens. Jethro’s teaching gave hope to every mother and father that their child could grow to be great in Torah, fear of Heaven and a leader in Israel.

Rabbi Pincus points out that Moses himself did not strictly follow Jethro’s plan to appoint, “men of accomplishment, G-d-fearing people, men of truth, people who despise unjust gain.” Rather, the Torah reports, in Exodus 18:25, וַיִּבְחַר מֹשֶׁה אַנְשֵׁי חַיִל מִכָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם רָאשִׁים עַל הָעָם שָׂרֵי אֲלָפִים, שָׂרֵי מֵאוֹת, שָׂרֵי חֲמִשִּׁים וְשָׂרֵי עֲשָׂרֹת , Moses chose men of accomplishment from among all Israel and appointed them heads of the people, leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of ten. Apparently, Moses was either unable to find, or unwilling to appoint, only those people who possessed the exceptional qualities that Jethro suggested. Rather, he chose honest people who were devoted to Torah study and were G-d-fearing, so that future judges would be regarded in their generation to be as great as Moses, even though they certainly did not measure up to the qualities or talents of Moses.

The Al-mighty G-d, suggests Rabbi Pincus, went even further to universalize the call to public service when He said to all the People of Israel, Exodus 19:6, וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ , And you shall be onto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people. While Jethro’s judicial plan suggests that among every ten Jews there must be at least one exceptional Jew who can serve as a judge, G-d declared that every Jew has the potential to be exceptional.

From parashat Yitro, and from the modifications of Jethro’s judicial plan by both Moses and G-d, we see that it must be the aspiration of every Jew to become a person of accomplishment, G-d-fearing and a person of truth, and for the People of Israel as a whole to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It is only by striving for perfection that we qualify to be, Exodus 19:5, סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל הָעַמִּים , G-d’s Chosen People.

May you be blessed.