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An Outsider’s View: Jethro and Moses

jethro and moses

Why was he called Yitro (“his addition”)? Because he added a chapter to the Torah—[the chapter] “And you should see [to choose] from the people…”

Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 27:7

The Torah was communicated to us through Moses; indeed, the prophet goes so far as to refer to the word of G-d as “Moses’ Torah.”[1] On several occasions, however, other individuals are given credit for the revelation of a particular section. Thus we are told that the section dealing with laws of the “Second Passover” (Numbers 9:6-14), which came as G-d’s response to a group of Jews who were ritually impure yet refused to reconcile themselves with the fact that they could not participate in the Passover offering, “ought to have been related by Moses, like the rest of the Torah, but these people merited that it be revealed by their initiative.”[2] The same is said regarding the laws of inheritance (Numbers 27:6-11) whose revelation was prompted by the daughters of Tzelafchad,[3] the penalty for desecrating Shabbat (Numbers 15:35-36) prompted by the “wood gatherer,”[4] etc.

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, is also credited with a section of Torah. Indeed, his name (Yitro, in the Hebrew, meaning “his addition”) was given him “because he added a chapter to the Torah.” In this, the case of Jethro is unique. In all other instances, nothing was “added” to the Torah—these were laws that would have been included in the Torah in any case, for without them the Torah is not complete; it was only that instead of being communicated directly to Moses as was the rest of the Torah, certain individuals had the merit to be involved in the process of their revelation.[5] Only Jethro’s section is referred to as an “addition”—something that would not have been part of the Torah were it not for his initiative. In other words, the Torah was complete without this section, and Jethro added something to it.

What was Jethro’s addition? What did it contribute to our understanding of the divine wisdom?

Delegated Authority

When Jethro arrived in the Israelite camp, he was shocked to discover that Moses was serving as a one-man educational and judicial system for a community of several million souls.[6] “Why do you sit alone,” he asked his son-in-law, “and the entire people stand about you from morning till evening?”

Moses replied: “The people come to me to seek G-d. When they have a matter of dispute they come to me, and I judge between a man and his fellow. I teach them the laws of G-d and His instructions.”

Said Jethro: “It is not good, this thing that you are doing. You will wither away, both you and this people who are with you… you cannot do this alone.” Jethro went on to suggest that Moses select from among the people “able men, those that fear G-d, men of truth, who abhor profit” and appoint them as arbiters and judges. Moses would continue to teach the people “the laws and the instructions … the path they should follow and the deeds they should do.” But the application of these laws to the daily life of the camp, the resolution of questions and the settlement of disputes, should be delegated to these men. “They shall judge the people at all times: the great matters they shall present to you, and the minor things they shall arbitrate themselves.”

Moses accepted and implemented Jethro’s plan, appointing “captains of thousand, captains of hundred, captains of fifty and captains of ten.” The people were themselves entrusted with the application of the divine law to their daily lives, while Moses confined his role to teaching them the laws and deciding the most difficult issues. [7]

A Reluctant Mouthpiece

A similar thing had occurred four months earlier, when the people of Israel assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from G-d. [8]

The divine voice pronounced the first two of the Ten Commandments (“I am G-d…” and “You shall have no other gods…”). But the people felt that they were incapable of receiving a direct communication from G-d. “You approach,” they begged Moses, “and hear all that the L-rd our G-d will say. You tell us all that the L-rd our G-d will say to you, and we will listen and do.”

Moses was deeply disappointed to hear this: it was his desire that the people should receive the entire Torah directly from the mouth of G-d. But G-d said to him: “I have heard the words that the people have spoken to you; they have spoken well… Go say to them: ‘Return to your tents.’ And you remain here with Me, and I shall relate to you the commandment, the statutes and the laws which you shall teach them…”[9]

Moses was not only a great and holy man; he was also Israel’s leader—the greatest leader we have ever known. He was a “faithful shepherd”[10] to his people, feeding their bodies and nourishing their souls, sensitive to the individual needs of every member of his flock.[11] Moses did not “overestimate” his people when he desired that they receive the Torah directly from G-d; on the contrary—he perceived their true and ultimate potential, and as a true leader, he endeavored to actualize it. In Moses’ eyes, the people of Israel were capable of assimilating the highest revelations; under his leadership, they could actually have achieved this.

But the people did not want to relate to G-d on this level. They wanted to receive the Torah with their own, self-actualized, faculties, not with the sublime powers that Moses could summon forth from the depths of their souls. They wanted that their experience of Torah should be true to how they are to themselves, rather than how Moses sees them.

G-d agreed. After having been exposed to the divine essence of Torah (as contained within the first two commandments), they would receive the Torah not as a supernal “voice” from Heaven, but as ideas formulated in a human mind, as words articulated by a human mouth and put in writing by a human hand. They would receive the Torah via the mind, mouth and pen of Moses.

The Outsider

Having learned the divine laws from Moses, how were they to be implemented in their daily lives? How were they to be translated into guidance for raising a child, righting a troubled marriage or resolving a dispute between neighbors?

One might go to Moses. He received these laws from G-d; his knowledge and understanding of them is absolute. His application of them is certain to be the clearest, most unequivocal rendition of the divine law.

It is true that Moses is a million miles away from the petty neighbors’ dispute he is being troubled to resolve. But it is also true that the two litigants standing before him are certain to be elevated by the experience. In the presence of Moses, they, too, are capable of rising above the pettiness of their conflict. In the presence of Moses, they, too, are capable of relating to the pure principle being expounded, and of applying it to their relations back in their neighborhood.

This was how it was done until Jethro arrived in the Israelite camp.

Jethro was an outsider—a convert to Judaism who was not even present at the revelation at Mount Sinai.[12] Moses saw the people of Israel from the inside—in the light of their highest potentials, from the perspective of the inner core of their souls as they are one with his in the singular soul of Israel. Jethro saw them from the outside—their everyday selves, their petty cares and conflicts. He saw them as they are apart from Moses, while Moses saw them only as they are in the presence of Moses.

So he suggested to Moses that the people of Israel learn to govern themselves, to arbitrate their disputes, to apply the laws of Torah to their lives. Moses was to remain the sole source of these laws, but their implementation was to be achieved by a multi-tiered body of magistrates and counselors at every level of the community (“captains of ten, captains of hundred,” etc.). This way, the divine law would permeate their lives on every level, not only at the apogee of their being.

This is what Jethro “added” to the Torah. Without his addition, the Torah was complete. Indeed, there was no real need for Jethro’s system, for Moses could always be counted on to raise the lives of his people to the level on which he expounded the word of G-d. But their understanding and practice of Torah would have remained something that Moses had empowered them to attain, not something they had attained on their own. Jethro’s system made the Torah the personal achievement of every Jew.

More significantly, Jethro’s initiative was accepted and implemented by Moses, and written into the Torah. Were it not for Jethro, the Torah would have remained “Moses’ Torah”—a guide to life for Moseses and Moses-elevated Jews. After Moses’ passing, a system such as Jethro’s would have been established, to “bring down” Moses’ Torah to a lesser generation. But Jethro insisted that Moses delegate of his capacity to interpret the Torah to the sages of his generation, and by extension, to the sages of all generations. Because it was Moses who established this system, it was incorporated as a section in Torah, making it an integral part of the divine communication to man. Because of Jethro, the Jew who studies and lives Torah today is relating to the divine “original” rather than to a human interpretation.[13]

This essay on Jethro and Moses is based on an address by the Rebbe, Shevat 15, 5735 (January 27, 1975).[14]

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.

[1]. Malachi 3:22.

[2]. Sifri, Numbers 9:8.

[3]. Talmud, Bava Batra 119a.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. See sources cited in notes 2 and 3.

[6]. A census taken several months later counted 603,550 males between the ages of 20 and 60, excluding the tribe of Levi.

[7]. Exodus 18:14-26.

[8]. Jethro’s arrival in the Israelite camp and his suggestion to Moses are related in the 18th chapter of Exodus, while the revelation at Sinai is recounted in chapters 19, 20 and 24. However, Jethro’s suggestion to Moses was made on the 11th of Tishrei (the day after the second tablets were given on Yom Kippur), more than four months after the revelation at Sinai on Sivan 6 of the previous year (according to one opinion, his arrival in the camp was also after the giving of the Torah.) This is in keeping with the rule that “the Torah does not necessarily follow chronological order” (Mechilta on Exodus 18:13; Rashi, ibid.; Talmud, Zevachim 116a; ibid., Pesachim 6b; see, however, Daat Zekeinim MiBaalei HaTosafot on Exodus 18:13).

[9]. Deuteronomy 5:20-28; Rashi, ibid., v. 24; cf. Exodus 20:16.

[10]. Raaya meheimna. Also translated “shepherd of faith,” in the sense that Moses is Israel’s conduit of faith, the one who inculcates them with their knowledge and recognition of G-d, as a shepherd who feeds his flocks their vital needs (see Tanya, ch. 42.)

[11]. See Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 2:2.

[12]. See sources cited in note 8 above.

[13]. Cf. Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 2:4: “Everything that a qualified student of Torah is destined to originate was already given to Moses at Sinai.” The Talmud refers to the student’s achievement as original (a chiddush), yet says that it was already given to Moses! In other words, for an interpretation to be an authentic part of Torah, it must derive from the authority of Moses; yet Moses transmitted the Torah to us in such a way that enables our understanding of it to be our “own” achievement. See also Tanya, ch. 42.

[14]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XVI, pp. 203-210.


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