Thoughts on parashat Yitro. 

Imagine that you live in pre-modern times and the technology we have today does not exist. Imagine that you are in the desert with a group of people and they expect you to lead them out of this desert. They expect you not only to take them out of the place they camp, they expect you to guide them to the place they can settle and have ‘a normal life’. They are a group of refugees from the country they had been abused for generations. They are not the most moral and civilized among the people on earth, precisely because of the abuse they experienced: the system they were living under did not encourage them to live morally because it was not a good strategy of survival, those who cheated and stole were much better off. 

The nature of desert is that it typically has an unlimited number of paths to choose from. You can go in literally every direction; the surrounding nature does not even suggest where to go. Many of these paths lead ‘nowhere’ or to self-destruction. There is a promised land somewhere but you don’t actually know where – you have to choose some path and expect the way to the promised land will be revealed at some point. 

What would you do in this situation? What direction would you take? What would be your instructions for those people? What moral guidelines would you give them in order to not only help them to survive but also to grow? 

This was the situation Moses was placed in. In this week’s parasha we see how the story unfolds: Moses sits as magistrate among the people; they stand around him from morning until evening. In the meantime, Moses’ father-in-law joins the Israelites. When he sees what is happening he tells Moses the following thing:

“What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” […] “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out, from among all the people, capable individuals who fear God—trustworthy ones who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.” (Exodus 18:14-23)

But our story is not only about one overwhelmed individual who aims to do everything alone, faces a complete failure and listens to reasonable advice that saves him and his community. This is a story of a complete rebirth and rebuilding of the entire society, which is necessary for its survival. Moses could not be responsible for every human being in his community. If that was the case, he would have become a Pharaoh to them, as the Midrash says. In order to function, the community of Israelites needs to decentralize the political power and moral authority. Even though Moses is considered tzadik, the greatest prophet and historical figure in Jewish history, he is not infallible. Even his great qualities did not give him the right to have absolute power over his people. Had he willed it and had such power, he would have probably led his people to a total disaster.

However, the human appetite for absolute power over the world never dies. We see examples of this here and there in the modern world. Although our world is very different from the reality the Israelites faced in the desert, in some respects its vastness, with countless paths to self-destruction, is completely open to us. This is because the technological and cultural development of our societies has opened up to us vast areas that are completely unknown to us, in the face of which we are as helpless as our ancestors after leaving Egypt. Therefore, we should always be skeptical and critical of those who “have the recipes” for our global problems, especially when they claim unquestioned power for themselves on this basis. Nor should we ever allow power, for whatever reason, to be centralized in the hands of an individual or a small group of people who cannot be removed or held accountable, no matter how “lofty” their intentions are. But I’m quite optimistic in this matter – I believe that civil awakening is happening; we, people, have agency in this world. With Divine help and proper concentration of our efforts we are able to unseat every tyrant. 

Shabbat shalom!



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