But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label…. Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.'” Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963
Moses is an “extremist for justice.”
We meet him first as a young man who cannot stand by and watch injustice. This quickly gets him into trouble, so he flees to Midian — where he immediately saves a group of young shepherdesses from the shepherds harassing them. (Exodus 2:11-17)
That is how Moses meets his wife, Zipporah, and her father, Jethro.
When we first encounter Jethro, he is surprised that to see his daughters home so early. He had expected them to be delayed by the shepherds. (Exodus 2:18-19)
Shemot Rabbah (1) offers background:
Our Rabbis said: Jethro was a priest of idolatry, and he saw that it was baseless, he despised it and thought of doing teshuvah [repenting] before Moses came. He called his townspeople and said to them: until now, I served you. From now on, now that I am old, choose yourselves another priest. He brought out the accessories of idolatry and gave them to them. They stood and excommunicated him, that no man should attend him or do work for him or herd his flock. He asked the shepherds to herd his flock for him and they would not, therefore, he sent out his daughters.
When Jethro realized the error of idolatry, he did not publicly proclaim monotheism, but he also did not continue to serve false gods. He framed his resignation from the priesthood as “retirement.” Still, his neighbors seem to have detected his heretical tendencies. The shepherds felt at liberty to harass his daughters, and Jethro apparently chose to put up with the situation, rather than confront them.
The Talmud discovers hints to Jethro’s earlier history. Another midrash asserts that he was an adviser to Pharaoh, and attended the meeting at which it was decreed that the Israelite baby boys should be thrown into the Nile:
…As Rav Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Simai: There were three in that counsel: Balaam, Job, and Jethro. Balaam, who gave advice – was killed. Job, who was silent – was judged with suffering. And Jethro, who fled – his descendants merited to sit in the Chamber of Hewn Stone [the Sanhedrin]… (Sanhedrin 106a)
Jethro offers us one mode for living as a righteous person within a wicked society. He refused to be complicit (not even going along with the silent assent of Job). He distanced himself from evil, but he did not go so far as to confront it.
Where Moses jumped forward to combat evil, Jethro stepped back. And it was in Jethro’s household that the passionate and intense young Moses could settle down and become a husband, a father, and a shepherd.
Until, one day, Moses turned aside to examine a burning bush, and was unwillingly called back to a life of action, leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Perhaps it was Moses’s capacity for pure commitment to truth and justice that enabled him to achieve the highest level of prophecy, to ascend Mount Sinai and receive the Torah.
Jethro visited Moses in the desert (Exodus 18:13-26), and saw that his son-in-law was busy from morning till night, judging every case and settling every dispute among the Israelites, “for the people come to me to seek God.”
“You will surely wear yourself out,” admonished Jethro. “This thing is too heavy for you, you cannot do it alone.”
Jethro advised Moses to delegate responsibility, and Moses agreed, appointing lower-level judges to handle the easier cases.
The exchange highlights the complementary qualities of Moses and Jethro.
As a young man, Moses could not ignore injustice, but jumped in to save the weak from the strong. Later, as a leader, he could not ignore the smallest question or dispute, but made himself continuously available to judge and teach.
Jethro, by contrast, had always been able to step back, accepting that he could not fix everything. He drew on his own predilection to show Moses how to rely on others, how to share the burden of leadership.
As the Israelites transitioned from the intensity of the Exodus and Mount Sinai to the daily routine of the desert camp, Moses was able to learn from Jethro’s pragmatism, adapting his leadership style to step back a bit so that he would be able to “endure, and also this entire people would come to its place in peace.”