This week Moses receives some invaluable wisdom from an unlikely source: Yitro, the High Priest of Midian. OK, the High Priest happens to be Moses’ father in law; but with the Torah so emphatically opposed to idolatry it seems unusual for Moses to accept advice from a pagan head of tribe. Yitro’s advice however, is so vital that our portion is named for him.
During the course of daily life, b’nai yisrael (naturally) engaged in personal disputes: About money, property, or even about interpreting verbal agreements between two parties. As their leader, Moses alone addressed each dispute. When the more seasoned Yitro observes a weary Moses serving as Israel’s only judge, he recognizes sheer madness. How can one human alone effectively judge an entire nation?
Yitro observes how Moses is wearing himself out, and wearing out a frustrated people as well. The Moses, who guided Israel while under oppression; needs to still mature into the leader who guides a free, democratic nation. One of his formidable challenges is to build an efficient judicial system. Yitro therefore, suggests that Moses divide the massive camp into smaller districts; with each district overseen by judges appointed by Moses. In the future, justice will be more expeditious and certainly more satisfying to the nation.
When it comes to matters of simpatico, Moses has no peer within Israel. He stands alone. For him, Yitro is not only a father in law; he is an esteemed colleague and adviser. Yitro, more than anyone in the Israelite camp, appreciates the burdens and frustrations of leadership:
- He understands how Moses devotes his life to the people, yet is subject to harsh criticism around the clock.
- He appreciates how despite miraculous accomplishments, there is an ever present what have you done for me lately theme hovering over b’nai yisrael. Consequently, when it comes to his relationship with them, Moses can never feel totally secure. Successes are fleeting; but failures are magnified.
- He knows that Moses bears the frustration of often standing alone; as if dwelling on a deserted island with no companionship.
- He recognizes that leading a nation often means trial and error; yet Moses’ constituents have no patience for such a process. They expect from him nothing less than perfection.
In his capacity as Midian Priest, Yitro has witnessed all the highs and lows of leadership. Therefore, his counsel to Moses reflects a lifetime of experience and wisdom. Whatever their distinctive traditions and cultures; Moses and Yitro affiliate with an exclusive club. They are among the select individuals, who willingly embrace all the foibles of their respective nations in the course of loving their people.
Yitro not only serves his Midian nation with nobility; he has enriched the character of Moses and of all b’nai yisrael. The wisdom he shares not only benefited the desert Jews, but set a table for the lofty and exemplary standards of Jewish jurisprudence which still benefit us today.
For such achievements, Yitro has earned the rare honor of having a Torah portion dedicated to him, on behalf of an appreciative Jewish nation.