Yithro then suggested that Moshe reform the existing system so that only the major problems would be brought to his personal attention while minor problems would be decided on by a large number of wise people who would assist him.
If you agree to this, and God concurs, you will be able to survive. This entire nation will then also be able to attain its goal of peace. Moshe took his father-in-law’s advice and did all that he said. (Ibid 18: 23-24) (2)
Rabbi Hirsch poses a very simple question. Could Moshe not have realized this himself? Did he not know that he was exhausting himself and that it would not take long before he would be unable to cope with the situation? One does not have to be a genius to see the problem. Furthermore, Yithro’s suggestion is basically a simple one. It does not require great juridical knowledge. So why did Moshe, the wisest of all, not think of this himself?
Before studying Rabbi Hirsch’s response there is another question to be asked. At the end of Moshe’s life we are informed that “his eyes had not dimmed, and his natural powers had not left him.”(Devarim 34:7) (3) His physical strength was beyond 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). It is therefore strange that Moshe suddenly felt tired while judging the people. We would not have been surprised to read that Moshe told his father-in-law not to worry, since no weariness was troubling him and he could easily handle all those who came to see him.
However, Moshe said no such thing. Instead, he seemed most eager to implement his father-in-law’s suggestion. We must therefore conclude that he indeed felt extremely tired!
Our question, then, is obvious. Why did he suddenly feel weary? Would the man who was on Mount Sinai for forty days without food and water not have been able to sit from early morning until late at night judging the people without getting exhausted? Why did God suddenly deny him his usual, albeit unprecedented, strength?
Not only that, but we would suggest that God had an interest in Moshe’s maintaining his strength. As the great leader and teacher of Torah, Moshe needed to stay in contact with all of his people. This would require his seeing them frequently. Once he would stop meeting with all of them regularly, they would become spiritually distanced from him, and he would no longer be able to teach them as he was used to. (Indeed this seems to have happened after he implemented Yithro’s advice!) So what were God’s motives in making sure that Moshe would suddenly feel tired?
We may now refer to 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. (4)
In other words, Moshe, with all his greatness, lacked basic insight on how to guarantee proper administration of the juridical process. God denied him this insight to prove to later generations that he could never have been a lawgiver and that the laws of Torah were not the result of his superior mind.
We would 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 (1696-1743), known as the Ohr Hachaim, indeed alludes to this when he writes that the very reason why God caused Yithro to come and visit the camp of the Israelites was to teach the Jewish people an important lesson. Although the Torah is the all-encompassing repository of wisdom, it should be clear that gentiles, though not obligated to observe all its laws, are fundamental to its successful application. There are matters in which Jews do not excel and non-Jews are much more gifted. One example seems to be 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 its need 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 that God sent to His people only a short while after He had saved them from the hands of the Egyptians. Due to their recent experience in the land of their slavery, they had developed such animosity towards anything gentile that they were utterly convinced that all of mankind was anti-Semitic. God immediately crushed that thought and sent them a righteous gentile by the name of Yithro to impress upon them that the non-Jewish world includes remarkable people who not only posses much wisdom but actually love the people of Israel and could greatly 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. He can do it all alone. This attitude, rooted in his conviction that all gentiles are anti-Semitic and therefore not to be relied on, could not only lead to total isolation but also to Jewish haughtiness contrary to God’s will. By allowing Moshe to become exhausted, God made sure that he would need the knowledge from somebody else.
By causing Yithro to become the father-in-law of the most holy Jew of all times, God made it crystal clear that He would tolerate no racism and that even a righteous gentile could climb up to the highest ranks of saintliness. Only after that message was received were the Jews ready to enter the land and start their life as an independent nation.
That message should not be lost on today’s Jewish religious educators. Too often, we hear about certain segments of the religious community in which students are taught that the gentile world has nothing to offer the Jewish world. That non-Jews have no part in spiritual and religious life. It is true that certain traditional sources do not have a favorable attitude towards non-Jews, but this must be seen in their historical settings in which Jews were targeted in brutal outbursts of severe anti-Semitism. These sources speak about people who were deeply immersed in immoral acts and profound hatred, and had lost their divine image.(5) To identify them with the general non-Jew who, like Yithro, is highly moral and often deeply religious, is a dangerous development which completely misrepresents Jewish values and does great harm to Judaism’s image. That some later, even classic, rabbinical works have adopted these attitudes is a great tragedy.
A highly astonishing statement by the Talmud bears this out. In fact, it turns the tables on us and puts all of this in a completely different light:
“Why was the Torah given to Israel? Because they are tenacious, and had the Torah not been given to them, no nation could have stood up against them.” (Betza 25b)
The famous halachic authority and Chassidic leader Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz (1793-1876), in his responsa Divrei Chaim, explains this statement in a most revealing way:
By nature Jews are obstinate, so that Torah was given to break their natural obstinacy with prohibitions and extra restrictions against arrogance, adultery and robbery and so on, to keep them on the middle path, because they have by nature a tendency towards pugnacity, the Torah restricts them by additional prohibitions. But other nations do not need extra restrictions because they are not pugnacious by nature, so that for them the seven laws (of Noach) are sufficient. (6)
This daring observation is not a little surprising. But what seems to count is only one thing:
“Whether Jew or gentile, man or woman, slave or maidservant, the Divine Spirit rests on a person according to his actions.” (Tanna Devei Eliyahu, chapter 9).
It is the story of Yithro that reminds us of this. We are obliged to protest any attitude that smacks of racism, and remove it from Judaism. Anything less is a dereliction of our duty. May God bless the Gentiles.
(1) Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah, A New Translation Based on Traditional Jewish Sources, Moznaim Publishing Corp., New York-Jerusalem, 1981, pp. 192-193.
(2) Ibid, p. 193.
(3) Ibid, pp. 599-600.
(4) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch, Shemoth,
Tr. Isaac Levy, Judaica Press. (This translation from German into English leaves much to be desired.)
(5) See Meiri on Bava Kama 37b.
(6) Divrei Chaim, Responsa Part 1, Yoreh Deah 30, brought in Prof. Leo Levi’s article, “Israel and the Nations,” Encounter: Essays on Torah and Modern Life, ed. H. Chaim Schimmel and Aryeh Carmel, Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem-New York, 1989, pp. 140-168.