Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, one of the great Jewish leaders and thinkers of modern times, asks us to take notice of a strange incident in the days of Moshe. After Moshe left Egypt with a multitude of people, his father-in-law, Yitro, criticized him for the way he was administrating the Israelites. “‘What is this that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit alone and all the people stand around you from morning until evening? And Moshe responded to his father-in-law: ‘It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they are solicitous about any matter they come before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and the teachings of God.’ But Moshe’s father-in-law said to him: ‘What you are doing is not right, you will surely wear yourself out and these people as well.'” (Shemoth 18:13-21)
Yitro consequently suggested that Moshe reform the existing system such that only the major problems would be brought to his personal attention while minor problems would be decided on by a great amount of wise people who would assist him. “‘You will make it easier for yourself, and they will share the burden’ And Moshe heeded his father-in-law and did just as he said.” (Ibid 18:23)
Rabbi Hirsch poses a very simple question: Could Moshe not have determined this himself? Did he not realize that he was exhausting himself and that it would not take long before he would no longer be able to cope with the situation? One does not have to be a genius to see the problem. Besides this, Yitro’s suggestion is basically a simple one. It does not need great juridical knowledge. So why did Moshe, the wisest of all, not think of this himself?
Before studying Rabbi Hirsch’s comment we would like to add another question: At the end of the life of Moshe we are informed that “His eye was not dim and his vigor unabated.” (Devarim 34:7) His physical strength was beyond the average, and, indeed, we do not see that Moshe ever got tired (except in the case where his hands became heavy when the Jews fought the Amalekites (Shemoth 17:12) As such, it is strange that Moshe suddenly felt tired while judging the people. We would not have been surprised if we would have read that Moshe told his father-in-law that he should not worry, since no weariness was troubling him and that he could easily handle all those who came to see him.
However, Moshe did not make any such observation. Instead he seems to be most eager to implement his father-in-law’s suggestion. We must therefore conclude that he indeed felt extremely tired!
Our question is therefore obvious: Why did he suddenly feel weary? Would the man who was without food and water for forty days on top of Mount Sinai not have been able to sit from early morning until late at night to judge the people without getting exhausted? Why did God suddenly deny him his usual but unprecedented strength?
Besides all this, we should suggest that God should have had excellent reasons to make sure that Moshe kept his strength. As the great leader and teacher of Torah, Moshe was in dire need to stay in contact with all of his people. The way to accomplish this would be by making sure that he would see them on a frequent basis. Once he would no longer encounter all of them, they would get spiritually distanced from him, and he would no longer be able to teach them in the way he was used to. (Indeed this seems to have happened after he implemented Yitro’s advice!) So what were God’s motives to make sure that Moshe suddenly should feel tired?
We may now consult Rabbi Hirsch’s observation: “Nothing is so instructive to us as this information regarding the first legal institution of the Jewish State, coming immediately before the chapter of the Law-giving. So little was Moshe in himself a legislative genius, he had so little talent for organizing that he had to learn the first elements of state organization from his father-in-law. The man who tired himself out to utter exhaustion and to whom of himself did not occur to arrange this or some other simple solution, equally beneficial to himself and his people, the man to whom it was necessary to have a Yitro to suggest this obvious device, that man could never have given a constitution and Laws out of his own head, that man was only and indeed just because of this the best and the most faithful instrument of God.”
In other words, Moshe with all his greatness lacked the basic insights how to guarantee the proper administration of the juridical process. God denied him this insight to prove to later generations that he could never had been a lawgiver and that the laws of Torah were not the result of his superior mind.
We would however like to suggest a second reason. God denied Moshe his usual strength so as to allow a non-Jew to come forward and give him advice! The Kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar known as Ohr Hachaim indeed alludes to this when he writes that the very purpose why God caused Yitro to come and visit the camp of the Israelites was to teach the Jewish people that although the Torah is the all-encompassing repository of wisdom, it should become clear that gentiles, although not obligated to observe all its Laws, are fundamental to its success and application. There are things in which Jews do not excel and where non-Jews are much more gifted. One seems to be the skill of proper bureaucratic administration.
Judaism was and is never afraid to admit that the gentile world incorporates much wisdom and insight. While Jews have to be a nation apart, this does not exclude the fact that it needs to look beyond its own borders and benefit from the wisdom of outsiders.
The gentile world may not posses Torah, but it definitely does possess wisdom. (Eichah Rabati 2:17)
It is this message which God sent to His people only a short while after He had saved them from the hands of Egypt. Due to their experience in the land of their slavery, they had developed such animosity for anything gentile that they became utterly convinced that mankind at large was solely antisemitic. God immediately crushed the thought and sent them a righteous gentile by the name of Yitro to impress upon them that the non-Jewish world includes remarkable people who do not only posses much wisdom, but actually love the people of Israel and contribute to Jewish life.
Moshe’s sudden weariness and God’s decision to deny him his usual strength is therefore highly informative. The Jew may start to believe that he is self-sufficient and that he can do it all alone. This attitude, rooted in his conviction that all gentiles are antisemitic and therefore not to be relied on, could not only lead towards total isolation but also to a kind of Jewish haughtiness contrary to God’s will. By allowing Moshe to become exhausted, God made sure that Moshe would indeed need the knowledge from somebody else.
At the same time it kept Moshe humble.
By making Yitro into the father-in-law of the most holy Jew of all times, God made it crystal clear that He would not tolerate any racism and that even a righteous gentile could climb up to the highest ranks of saintliness. Only after that message was sent the Jews were ready to enter the land and start their own life as an independent nation.