Jethro is an enigmatic character, introduced to us earlier in the book when Moses first made his way to Midian. Now, with Israel in the wilderness, Jethro travels to join them, bringing his daughter – the wife of Moses, and his grandsons – the two sons of Moses. The Midrash tells us a great deal about Jethro, painting a picture of Jethro as a defender of the rights of the immigrant family of Jacob in Egypt. Jethro advised Pharaoh against enslaving the nation of Israel, and he paid a steep price for standing up to Pharaoh, forced to flee to Africa much like Moses did later.
What prompted Jethro to join the nation in the wilderness at this time? While the Midrash offers several suggestions, and they are all derived from hints in the text itself, we can’t ignore the emphasis of the text on the wife and sons of Moses. Whatever other motives Jethro had, a primary reason was to accompany Zipporah and her two children to join Moses in the wilderness. Jethro was the chaperone, ensuring they arrived safely to reunite their family. Whatever the motives of Jethro’s visit, however, the impact of his visit leaves a lasting impression.
Moses was the leader of the people, the prophet who delivered the word of God during this great period of development and transition. There really was no one else who could fit in his shoes, and Moses recognized that he could not delegate his responsibilities to others. The scene that met Jethro upon his arrival was of Moses teaching, adjudicating, explaining and settling issues with the people. “And it was on the morrow, and Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood over Moses from the morning until the evening.”(18:13)
This sight was disturbing to Jethro, and he made it known to Moses that this was a mistake. ‘What are you doing to the people?’ Jethro demanded. ‘Why are you judging alone, with the entire nation standing around you from morning till night?’
Moses explained that the people were seeking learning and explanations about God and the commandments. Moses saw himself as the sole arbiter of the Torah at that time. There was no one else who had such communication from God in regards to the details of the law. All this was new to the people, and it would take time for them to learn and absorb this divine system of law. Moses perceived himself as indispensable in this respect, and he was indispensable. But Jethro did not accept that argument. “And the father-in-law of Moses said to him, that which you are doing is not good. You will wear yourself out, both you and the people who are with you, for this burden is too heavy for you – you cannot do it alone.” (18:17-18)
Despite the status of Moses and his critical role in the dissemination of the Torah law, Jethro perceived the impossibility of one person bearing this responsibility. The backlog of cases was out of control, and Moses himself would not last under such pressure. The ideal way is not always the practical way. Something had to give, and Jethro urged Moses to decentralize his authority, to delegate responsibility and act as a senior judge rather than take all rulings upon himself. This was a sacrifice, to be sure. The rulings were more subject to error, and they were not coming from the closest thing to the source, but it was the only manageable way forward.
The greatness of Moses was that he accepted Jethro’s advice. He was willing to set aside the ideal because being right isn’t always the goal, it isn’t always helpful. In an ideal world Moses would have been the sole judge, issuing rulings from his office on matters big and small, financial and personal, communal and private. And this would be ideal for the people as well. My grandmother gave me sage advice – ‘always go to the top.’ When any issues arise, when any matter needs to be resolved, bring it directly to the boss. Bureaucracy doesn’t work that way, however. In a standard workplace one needs to first raise an issue with one’s superior, who may or may not resolve it, and may or may not bring it further up the chain of command. Jethro recommended doing just this – establishing a bureaucracy so the burden will be spread among many people, among different strata and ranks of judges.
We knew that Moses was a great prophet, reaching profoundly spiritual heights. But we didn’t know the extent of his pure character, his humility and grace. His willingness to sacrifice being right, to accept that being right isn’t always best, illustrates his greatness in a whole new dimension. One of the greatest difficulties for us as people is to forgo being right for the sake of a greater good. A truly great person, for example, will offer an apology regardless of fault. It is a simple matter of pragmatism, but it demands a lot of character. This Moses did without hesitation, without flinching.
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