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Yitro's Judicial Reforms

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Yitro's Judicial Reforms

by Rav Michael Hattin





            Last week we read of Israel's fateful crossing of the Sea of Reeds and of their subsequent entry into the foreboding wilderness.  There, God sated their hunger with the miraculous manna that began to fall from the skies daily and continued unabated until their entry into the land some forty years later.  From the wilderness of Seen, the people journeyed to Refidim, and there they thirsted mightily for water.  Moshe cried out to God and was duly instructed to strike the rock so that the water gushed forth.  In the aftermath of that event, the marauding and predatory tribe of Amalek attacked the people and struck down the weak and exhausted Israelites that straggled at the rear of the camp.  Engaged by Yehoshua and a hastily organized militia, Amalek retreated and God then pronounced a most fearful ban – "God said to Moshe: Record this as a memorial in the book and state it clearly to Yehoshua, for I will surely blot out the memory of Amalek from underneath the heavens!" (Shemot 17:14). 


            The jubilance and exultation of the Exodus from Egypt were thus quickly tempered by the sobering events that followed, for no sooner had the people left the bitterness of backbreaking servitude when they were tested by terror, hunger, thirst and warfare in numbing succession!  But at each of these trials that they reluctantly experienced, God was reassuringly present, discomfiting their overlords and enemies and patiently providing their every need.  The lesson of these remarkable events was therefore twofold: firstly, that liberation from physical bondage was but the first step in the arduous and lengthy process of transforming a slave people into a nation.  That process could not possibly be accomplished in short order and would in fact necessitate the overcoming of many successive hurdles.  Secondly, that Israel's survival and success in the world hinged upon God's direct and benevolent intervention, for only His ongoing awareness and concern, His immediacy and His power extricated the people from disaster.




            This week's Parashat Yitro opens on a more optimistic note.  Yitro, Moshe's non-Israelite father-in-law and the high priest of Midian, journeys from his desert redoubt to encounter the people of Israel as they encamp at Sinai.  But unlike Amalek who sallies forth with hostile and murderous intentions, Yitro – with Moshe's wife Tzippora and his children in tow – comes in peace, inspired by the reports of a God who took compassion upon His downtrodden people and saved them from cruel Egyptian servitude.  "Yitro said: Blessed be God who saved you from the grip of the Egyptians and from the grip of Pharaoh, who saved the people from the servitude of Egypt!  Now I know that God is greater than all of the other gods, for this was on account of the fact that they oppressed them!" (Shemot 18:10-11).  In sincere dedication, Yitro offers sacrifices to God and invokes His holy name.


            What follows immediately in the wake of Yito's arrival is nothing less than the complete overhaul of the nascent judicial system.  On the morrow of the sacrificial meal, Yitro sees his son-in-law Moshe wholly engrossed in the meritorious but thankless task of adjudicating the people's quarrels.  From dawn until dusk, Moshe labors single-handedly, bringing relief to the oppressed and restoring that which had been unjustly seized, while at the same time making known the statutes and laws of God.  But how exhausted and overburdened the lawgiver is, for no man can serve as judge for an entire nation!  "You will surely wither away!" cautions Yitro, "you as well as all of this people that is with you, for this matter is too onerous for you, you cannot do it all alone!" (Shemot 18:18).




            In place of the inefficient and ultimately self-defeating system that taxed judge and litigants alike (for what person hadn't waited interminably for his or her case to be heard?), Yitro suggests a hierarchical arrangement in which honest and God-fearing judges of different levels of expertise be appointed to judge their respective cases.  The least qualified will be charged to judge the most straightforward while the more expert will attend to the more complex, thus freeing Moshe himself from hearing all but the most difficult;  As Yitro explains:


You shall select from all of the people men of valor who are God fearing, men of truth who hate bribes, and you shall appoint them for the people as officers over thousands, officers over hundreds, officers over fifties and officers over tens.  They shall judge the people at all times – that which is too difficult for them they shall bring to you while that which is straightforward they shall judge themselves.  In this way, you shall achieve relief and they shall bear the burden with you (Shemot 18:21-22).


            Thus, Yitro suggests, Moshe will be able to perform his most important function of guiding the people in the ways of God and teaching them His instruction while the people will secure quick access to the judicial process.  This first passage of the Parasha concludes with Moshe humbly acceding to his father-in-law's sage advice and initiating the changes.


            How frustrated Moshe must have felt before the reforms of Yitro, for though he labored mightily he could not retire the backlog.  Why is it then that Moshe himself, so overextended, did not foresee from the outset the faults of a system so patently flawed?  Why does it require the arrival of Yitro to identify the problem and to remedy the situation?  Had no one else noticed that the wheels of justice were slowly and noisily grinding to a halt while the tired lawgiver stood hunched over an accumulation of cases that even a well-organized and efficient court system would have found daunting? 




            Tellingly, Moshe himself alludes to the unsustainable nature of the situation, in his instructive reminisces to the people of Israel recorded some forty years later in the Book of Devarim.  While invoking God's blessing upon them and praying for their increase, Moshe recalls the limitations of his powers:


I said to you at that time: "I cannot bear you alone.  God your Lord has increased you and you are today as numerous as the stars of the heavens.  May God the Lord of your ancestors increase you a thousand fold and bless you, just as He spoke to you.  But how shall I bear by myself your burdens, oppressions and struggles?  Give forth intelligent and wise men, reputable among your tribes, and I shall appoint them over you."  You responded to me and said: "what you have said to do is good."  So I took the heads of your tribes, intelligent, wise and reputable men, and appointed them as leaders over you.  They were officers over thousands, officers over hundreds, officers over fifties and officers over tens, as well as enforcers for your tribes.  I commanded your judges at that time, saying: "Adjudicate between your fellows and judge justly, whether between men, between brothers or between sojourners.  Do not show favor in judgment, listen to the weak as well as to the strong, and do not fear any man, for justice belongs to God.  As for the matter that is too difficult for you to judge, you shall bring it before me and I shall decide it" (Devarim 1:9-17).


While the above passage from Sefer Devarim makes no mention of Yitro, it is quite clear that the improvements that Moshe describes are those very ones suggested by his father-in-law in our Parasha.  This is indicated by the backdrop for the reforms – Moshe's fatigue and inability to meet the people's needs, by the mention of the officers over thousands, hundreds, etc., and by the provision that the most difficult cases remain the preserve of the lawgiver himself.  Most remarkable about the passage, however, is the window it affords us into Moshe's thoughts, a perspective entirely lacking from the narrative of our Parasha.  Thus Yitro in our passage is able to objectively describe how utterly untenable the situation is, while Moshe can respond with the facts: "Moshe said to his father-in-law: the people come to me seeking God.  When they have a matter they approach me and I then judge between each one and his fellow, informing them of the Lord's statutes and His instruction" (Shemot 18:15-16).  But nowhere in the section do we hear how Moshe FEELS about the situation.  Only in Sefer Devarim does he tell us that at that time he felt utterly overwhelmed, crushed by the onerous responsibility of judging the people and unable to bear it any longer: "I said to you at that time: I cannot bear you alone.  God your Lord has increased you and you are today as numerous as the stars of the heavens.  May God the Lord of your ancestors increase you a thousand fold and bless you, just as He spoke to you.  But how shall I bear by myself your burdens, oppressions and struggles?" (Devarim 1:9-12).


            Perhaps the answer to our earlier query is to be found in this passage from Sefer Devarim.  Indeed, Yitro indicates to Moshe that of which he has been aware the entire time, ever since the exodus from Egypt: he cannot judge the people alone.  Yitro's contribution, then, lies not in his presentation of new facts but rather in his boldness to demand their implementation.  Let us, for a moment, consider Moshe's stature in the eyes of the people, in light of the tumultuous events leading up to the journey forth from Egypt as well as in its aftermath. 




            We begin by noting that as the plagues reach their terrifying climax, Moshe's special powers are contested by no one.  As the darkness of the penultimate plague lifts, even as Pharaoh's heart remains adamant, the Torah tells us that the people of Israel are miraculously able to secure vessels of gold and silver from the overawed Egyptians, because "God gave the people grace in the eyes of the Egyptians, AND AS FOR THE MAN MOSHE, HE WAS VERY GREAT IN THE LAND OF EGYPT, IN THE VIEW OF THE SERVANTS OF PHARAOH AND IN THE VIEW OF THE PEOPLE" (Shemot 11:3).  Later on, after the Israelites have successfully crossed the Sea of Reeds while their powerful pursuers have been consumed by its rushing waves, the Torah tells us that "the people of Israel saw the great power that God utilized against the Egyptians and the people revered God.  THEY TRUSTED IN GOD AND IN MOSHE HIS SERVANT" (Shemot 14:31). 


            Entering the wilderness and experiencing first thirst and then hunger, the people's plight is relieved by Moshe: "He cried out to God and He showed him a tree; He (MOSHE) THREW IT INTO THE WATER AND THEY BECAME SWEETENED…" (Shemot 15:25).  It is then Moshe who announces to the ravenous hordes that God is about to satiate them with food "from the heavens" and it is Moshe that patiently guides them through the process of understanding the manna's strange properties and attendant provisions.  And though he indicates early on in no uncertain terms that God is behind the miracle, for "What are we (myself and Aharon)?  Your plaint is not upon us but rather upon God" (Shemot 16:7), this only serves to underline the fact that in the eyes of the Israelites, Moshe's prowess was regarded as responsible for the manna. 


            As last week's Parasha winds down and the people reach Refidim, Moshe's perceived powers once again come to the fore.  In response to the people's thirst, Moshe is commanded to strike the rock and this he dutifully does, now demonstrating that he is able to transform impervious stone into life-giving waters.  And when Amalek attacks, it is the outstretched hands of Moshe that appear to win the day: "WHEN MOSHE LIFTED HIS HAND THEN ISRAEL WOULD PREVAIL AND WHEN HE LOWERED HIS HAND THEN AMALEK WOULD PREVAIL…"(Shemot 17:11).




            In short, by the time the people reach the wilderness of Sinai at encamp at the mountain's feet, Moshe is regarded by them as much more than a leader.  He is their savior, their sustainer and their defender as well.  Acting as their judge and arbiter, Moshe's pronouncements are seen to be the word of God.  As we have seen, Moshe himself relates in Sefer Devarim that he was not physically able to judge the people alone and this simple fact must have been thoroughly obvious to all even before the advent of Yitro.  Moshe's reluctance to initiate judicial reform was therefore not a function of his lack of insight but rather the result of the Israelite's continuous pressure upon him.  They said to him at every opportunity, even as he was crushed under the weight of his duties and began to protest loudly and bitterly: "we very well know that having you as sole judge results in long delays.  But we will not have anyone else do the job!  You are our noble and eminently able leader, you are our helper and our guide, you alone of all men are capable of splitting the very sea and turning it into dry land!  We shall not accept the judgment of anyone else but you!"  And so Moshe tried to persevere, his great loyalty and love for the people of Israel now overcoming his better judgment.


            Enter Yitro, the denizen of the desert and wayfarer from afar, a reformed high priest of Midyan who understands only too well the dangers that lurk when any man, even the most noble, exercises powers regarded by his followers as superhuman.  "You will surely wither away!" cautions Yitro, "you as well as all of this people that is with you, for this matter is too onerous for you, you cannot do it all alone!" (Shemot 18:18).  Patently aware of Moshe's humanness even while the people of Israel perhaps began to think of him as more than a man, Yitro warns Moshe of the looming hazard and advises him to quickly change course.  The appointment of judges has two welcome consequences: firstly, it frees Moshe from an impossible task and relieves the people of long delays in the adjudication of their cases.  Secondly and just as important, it begins to chip away at the people's mistaken belief that Moshe can do everything, by emphasizing that even he needs the help of others.  And so Moshe, as reported in our Parasha, takes Yitro's counsel to heart, now seeming to bow to his father-in-law's authority even while he had known all along that just such a thing must be done.  The people of Israel can offer no protests now that an objective and supportive outsider – Moshe's own father-in-law! – has deemed the system untenable.  And thus it is that Moshe is finally relieved of his self-imposed burden of too much love for the people of Israel, by the implementation of Yitro's reasonable advice.


            Yitro's reforms, then, gently remind the people of Israel that though Moshe may seem to them to be capable of anything, he is in the final analysis only a man, albeit God's chosen leader but in no wise His replacement.  "Let no man," Yitro seems to say, "even the most humble and most capable, attempt to judge all men, for only One Being judges alone."  The example of Moshe therefore stands in glaring contrast to other movements, past and present, that intentionally focus the people's ardor and veneration on their charismatic leader who soon acquires divine status, so that he might in turn "relieve" his followers of their independence and freewill.   Instead, the Torah invites us to reconsider the folly of worshipping a man, any man, even the most unique and godly, so that we might reserve our greatest reverence for God Himself.


Shabbat Shalom