Before moving on to study Parashat Mishpatim, let us conclude our analysis of the second of the two stories about Yitro that appear at the very beginning of last week's Parasha.
The Torah tells us that, the day after his epiphany about God's providence, Yitro found Moshe sitting and judging the Jewish people from morning till night. As the political leader of the nation and its prophet, Moshe handled every religious, administrative and judicial duty directly; he did not delegate. As a result, he was personally responsible for dealing with an enormous number of practical details and complications, ranging from the sublime to the trivial. (This was micromanagement at its worst - imagine if the Supreme Court were responsible for hearing every small claims or traffic court case in the country, and you'll get a sense of what it must have looked like!) The situation left Moshe overwhelmed, and proved a terribly frustrating experience for the Israelites who had to stand around all day long waiting for their cases to be heard. He was greatly disturbed by this and challenged Moshe:
What is this thing that you are doing to the people - why do you sit alone, while the entire nation stands before you from morning till evening?
Moshe acknowledged Yitro's question and responded:
Because the people come to me to seek God. When they have an issue, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his fellow; and I make known to them the laws of God and His instructions.
Yitro is not satisfied with Moshe's answer, and persists:
You will be worn out - you and this nation that is with you - because the matter is too heavy for you, and you cannot do it alone. Listen to my voice, I shall advise you, and may God be with you - you should be the representative before God, and should bring the matters before God. And you shall inform them of the laws and instructions, and you shall make known to them the path that they should walk in and the actions that they shall do. And now, choose from among the people men of valor...
Yitro proceeds to suggest a structural reformation of the national leadership, in which responsibilities will be divided up among lower judges and only major questions will be addressed to Moshe. In this way, Moshe will avoid burnout, and the people will not become frustrated or resentful because of the need to wait for Moshe's response to every minor question.
Why is this story important to us? What does it teach us, and how does it connect to the passages that precede and follow it in the Torah?
One of the salient features of the narrative is the repeated use of the name "God", "Elokim", instead of Hashem, by both Moshe and Yitro. This key term links the current episode to the prior one (in reality, the Torah text presents them as one long narrative; they are not separated into different paragraphs). As you may remember, Yitro brought a sacrifice in the name of "Elokim" because his acknowledgment of God stemmed from his perception of the Divine justice that was meted out in Egypt.
Indeed, the theme of justice is the central motif of the reorganization of the judiciary as well. Moshe is involved in judging cases. Yitro notices that the manner in which Moshe is leading the people is unjust - it winds up being a disservice to Moshe and to his people. Based upon his own insight into the paths of justice, Yitro recommends a reformulation of the Israelite bureacracy that removes the "injustice" from its "justice system".
There is an even deeper layer of "justice" that is implicit in the story. Yitro is an outsider, he literally was "born yesterday", at least from the standpoint of membership in the Jewish community. Yet his critique and suggestions are taken seriously. In some circles, we might imagine Yitro's meddling being dismissed casually with statements like, "who do you think you are to be telling us how to run our nation? You arrived less than twenty-four hours ago and you already see fit to criticize how things are done around here?" Indeed, this is exactly the reaction Lot met with when he tried to intervene with the citizens of Sedom, the ultimate disciples of corruption.
Moshe's unhesitating acceptance of Yitro's words signifies justice in its own right - an attachment to the truth without bias or prejudice. The source of an insight is irrelevant to its validity, and whether it comes from within Jewish ranks or from the priest of Midian, it must be considered honestly and objectively before being evaluated.
The two stories about Yitro and their common emphasis on justice form the perfect introduction to the Revelation at Sinai. The creation of a covenant between Hashem and a particular nation can easily be interpreted as an expression of favoritism or as the establishment of an exclusive Jewish "club" with special rights to God's attention. This attitude, however, is gravely mistaken.
By placing the narrative of Yitro before the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Torah wishes to show us that it is, first and foremost, grounded in the principles of universal Divine justice. Any human being can arrive at true knowledge of God, attach him or herself to the Jewish people and partake of its unique ideas and way of life. Furthermore, Judaism reserves its praise for truth and truth alone; it leaves no room for prejudice or discrimination. Indeed, we see that even our greatest prophet responded humbly and graciously to the constructive criticism of a gentile priest.