Yitro: Honoring All, Listening Well

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

Warm greetings on a windy day!

This week’s parsha, Yitro, is most famous for the revelation on Mt.
Sinai (I’m sure most of you have seen the movie), but the lesser-
known beginning section is just as interesting. As the Israelites
head on out into the wilderness, they meet up with Yitro, Moshe’s
father in law, who sees that Moshe is surely headed towards “burn-
out” from trying to deal with all the people’s needs himself. So
Yitro offers some good advice about trusting others with important
work; he tells Moshe to appoint captains on a local level, who can
resolve minor problems themselves:

“And they shall judge the people at all times, and it shall be that
any major matter they shall bring to you, and they themselves shall
judge every minor matter, thereby making it easier for you, and they
shall bear [the burden] with you.” (Shmot/ Exodus 18: 22).

Moshe takes his father in law’s advice, and implements the plan, as
we learn a few verses later:

“And they would judge the people at all times; the difficult case
they would bring to Moses, but any minor case they themselves would
judge.” (18:26)

Note a slight difference in wording between verse 22 and 26, which is
reflected in this English translation: in Yitro’s advice, Moshe is
only supposed to deal with the “major matters” [hadavar hagadol].
However, when Moshe actually puts in the plan into action, it says
that he personally dealt with the “difficult cases,” or “hadavar
hakasheh.” In plain Hebrew, “gadol” means “big”, or “important,”
but “kasheh” means “difficult.”

So tell me already what’s the difference?

I read once that the Hatam Sofer- an Orthodox rabbi of the previous
century- explained this with the suggestion that by using the
word “gadol,” Yitro was implying that Moshe would deal with the cases
involving the important people, the leaders and princes and wealthy.
Moshe, on the other hand, understood that the law applies to rich and
poor alike, and when he taught the local judges, he instructed them
to pass onto him the “hard” cases- that is, the complex ones, whether
or not they involved rich or poor.

So far, so good- this is a beautiful way of expressing Judaism’s
ethic of fairness and the dignity of every person. Rich and poor,
peasant and prince, all are equal under the law, because they are all
made in the Divine Image, and thus possessed of an inherent dignity
and right to redress grievances. This is so important to remember on
a communal and national level- each person should be important to us,
because central to our faith is that each person is important to God.

Yet there is one more aspect of this interpretation that I find
inspiring- the Hatam Sofer’s midrash sees in Moshe a lawgiver of
great integrity, but also a leader of great humility. In this
teaching, Moshe didn’t reject Yitro’s flawed suggestion, but listened
carefully to it, took what was good in it, and quietly improved upon
it, while at the same time allowing Yitro the honor of seeing his
idea made into reality. That, to me, is the first implementation of
Moshe’s attention to human dignity- that even though he had to
slightly modify Yitro’s plan, he did so in a way which preserved his
honor and feelings.

It’s not always easy to treat another’s honor as your own; it
requires integrity, thoughtfulness, and humility. Yet in so doing, we
can better see each person- rich or poor, family or stranger, as an
opportunity to meet the Sacred, and thus make inseparable our
spiritual growth and our ethical horizons.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as per usual, the first link takes you to a page with a summary
of the parsha and futher commentary, and the second link takes you to
a page with the text of the parsha and haftarah, in translation.



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