David Walk

Help! Not just anybody!

 One of the salient ideas about governance is that it requires cooperation. No country, state or large assemblage of people can be managed by one person. Even the smallest human groupings require responsibility sharing to function well.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise that this is Moshe Rabbeinu’s first topic in his valedictory address to the nation. Without responsible lieutenants and officials, no association can long endure. However, in this presentation there is one very surprising fact: Moshe leaves out Yitro. 

It’s remarkable that the earth’s most humble person gives no credit to Yitro when discussing the delegating of authority to captains (SARIM) and constables (SHOTRIM). Back in Parshat Yitro, we’re told that Moshe heeded his father in law. Here, it says that Moshe brought his own idea, actually a complaint, to God, and God approved it. 

Although there are many answers to this question (Surprise! I wasn’t the first to notice.), I’d like to develop an approach based on the context. Here’s what Yitro observed and commented in ShmotWhat is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening? (Shmot 18:14). 

Yitro is specifically discussing judging the cases which are brought by the people. Moshe, on the other hand, says:

I cannot carry you alone. The Lord, your God, has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as the stars of the heavens in abundance. May the Lord God of your forefathers add to you a thousand-fold as many as you are, and may He bless you, as He spoke concerning you! How can (EICHAH) I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by myself? (Devarim 1:9-12) 

Moshe is clearly discussing broader governmental issues. A fascinating aspect of Moshe’s description is the double-edged sword of growth and expansion. He is clear that the nation received the following bounty from God: 1. increase (HIRBA) ‘to be like the stars’, 2. additional (YOSEF) numbers, 3. blessing (VaYIVARECH). This corresponds to his difficulties in handling the Jews’ 1. trouble (TIRCHA), 2. burden (MASSA), 3. conflict (RIV). The Jews are more trouble because ‘they’re like the stars’, more of a burden because ‘they increased a thousand-fold’, and there’s more conflict because they are ‘blessed as promised’. 

The big difference between the issues in Shmot and here are in the requirements for the different jobs. Yitro says, ‘seek men of valor (CHAYIL), God fearing, men of truth, who spurn bribery (Shmot 18:21). Here Moshe cites the following job description, ‘men who are wise (CHACHAM), understanding (NAVON), and knowing (YEDU’IM, Rashi: well-known). Also, in Shmot Moshe picks the judges; here, the people choose. 

It’s clear, I believe, that the two stories are describing different incidents and, therefore, different details. There is no disrespect for Yitro. We’re talking about another scenario. Yitro was looking for judges who would be men of morality and piety. Moshe was searching for leaders who would be men of wisdom and accomplishment. I’d like to think that we can find people who have both sets of qualities. However, that wasn’t the case even then. In Shmot, when we actually find the individuals, the trait of ‘spurning bribery’ is not mentioned. Here, the attribute of understanding (NAVON) doesn’t get mentioned for the appointees.  

It’s important to acknowledge that a third list of requirements is presented in Sefer Bamidbar, when Moshe was distressed by the complaints of the people. In response, God said, ‘Assemble 70 of Israel’s elders, the ones you know to be elders (ZAKEN) and leaders (SHOTRIM, Bamidbar 11:16).’ Rav Amnon Bazak commented that along with the judges in Shmot, we have: 

Sefer Bamidbar describes the system of the seventy elders, who – together with Moshe – represent the spiritual leadership of the nation, by virtue of the prophecy awarded to those elders. Sefer Devarim, on the other hand, describes the system of captains – the heads of the nation, chosen by the nation to help with routine material leadership.      

 One of the critical lessons of Tanach is how good our shepherds can be, while, simultaneously, reminding us of the threshold of behavior our chiefs must achieve. Our guidance from God is honest and clear.  

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein OB”M said on our Parsha

It is no coincidence that Moshe starts his speech by noting the difficulty of maintaining a legal system and the challenges that it brings…We must remind ourselves of the minimal requirements (good character), and ask ourselves what efforts we are making to ensure that the candidates…meet them. 

We’ve had inspired managers, like Moshe and David, but real stinkers like Yerovam and Achav. Our nation has been given the metrics to evaluate our judges, spiritual guides, and political leaders. Let’s be true to them. Please! 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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