The essence of a Jewish leader: Thoughts on Parshat Yitro

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion we find an interesting dialogue between Moses and his father-in-law Yitro; it is a conversation which ultimately leads to the implementation of an organized judicial court system for the Jewish people while they traveled in the desert. The verses relate, “Moses sat down to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening.” (Exodus 18:13) Our Sages teach that the verses can be explained quite literally: Moses sat alone to settle disputes, while the people stood before him from morning until evening. Yitro, having heard of the miracle of the Exodus and joined the nation, witnessed this system and inquired with his son-in-law as to its rationale and efficacy. Moses responds, “For the people come to me to seek God. If any of them has a case, he comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make known the statutes of God and His teachings.” (Exodus 18:15-16). Interesting, to be sure, but what relevance does this entire episode have to teach us in our times? Why even mention the matter?

Rashi, the classical Biblical commentator further compounds our question, “Before the giving of the Torah it was impossible to say (verse 15), “and I make known the statutes, etc.,” [since the statutes had not yet been given]. Hence, this section is not written in [chronological] order, for “It came about on the next day,” was not said until the second year.” From this explanation we can understand that the Torah takes the opportunity to describe this seemingly mundane matter—the court system—out of order, for the event itself happened two years afterward. Further puzzling is the fact that the episode is written ahead of one of the most monumental events in Jewish history: the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments. Why mention this seemingly minor conversation between father-in-law and son-in-law ahead of its rightful chronological place? The fact that the Torah places the matter here seems to relay that within this story there is a lesson to be learned which is of equal or even greater importance to the events at Mount Sinai.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital of blessed memory, Dean of the Har Etzion Yeshiva, relates a famous Hassidic tale which not only helps to shed light on the biblical text but also offers a valuable lesson in rabbinical leadership. It has a significant message and so acutely describes the mission of a true Jewish leader.

Reb Moshe of Kobrin used to travel to various Rebbes in order to learn from them. Once he decided to spend Shabbat with Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta. On Friday afternoons, Reb Avraham used to come to shul early, long before the congregation arrived, in order to chant Shir Ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs. One such Friday afternoon, as Reb Avraham began chanting, Reb Moshe of Kobrin slipped in unnoticed and sat in a corner of the shul. Reb Avraham’s face was radiant under his shtreimel, and the sweet melody of the love song of God and His people filled the air. Reb Moshe sat transfixed, feeling as if he had entered the Holy of Holies.

Suddenly the door swung open and in walked a man, his face grimy, his clothes muddy, reeking of the smells of the barn. What important question can this man have, wondered Reb Moshe, that he comes to disturb the holy Reb Avraham at this moment?

The farmer approached Reb Avraham, wailing, “My cow, my cow! It is going to give birth and I’m afraid it will die!”

Reb Moshe was taken aback by this outburst, but Reb Avraham answered him patiently, telling him where to go for help and who to speak to.

After the Shabbat evening meal, Reb Moshe could contain himself no longer. He asked Reb Avraham how he could have countenanced such rudeness.

“Did you hear what he asked me?” replied Reb Avraham.

“He asked about his cow,” answered Reb Moshe.

“My dear Reb Moshe, you weren’t listening carefully. The farmer wasn’t crying ‘My cow, my cow’ – he was crying ‘Rebbe, Rebbe! I am so small, so distant. I want a connection with God; please help me.’ He simply wanted to speak to me, to establish a connection with me, and through me to connect to God. But how could he establish a connection with me? By discussing a passage of the Talmud or of the Zohar? No, he could only connect to me by discussing something he knew about – his cow.”

Yitro, like Reb Moshe of our story, was shocked to find that Moses was dealing with the trivial problems of the people and felt that engaging in such matters was below his stature. Surely they could be delegated to someone else so that he could focus on more lofty work. However, Moses understood that he was not merely judging the people’s disputes, but rather he was serving as the physical address for the people to connect with God — and that meant making himself approachable and available to them. With his response to Yitro, Moses hints to the fact that his father-in-law is not understanding the true essence of the scene. In answer to “What is this thing that you are doing to the people?” Moses responds, “Because the people come to me to seek God.” And how do they seek God? Moses continues, “When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” According to Rav Amital, in Moses’ eyes, the purpose of judging the people was not only in order to deliver a verdict in a particular case, but rather it was for a higher purpose and in order to serve as a crucial link in the chain of connecting the nation to God. (Parashat Yitro 5756.)

With this in mind, we can understand the reason why the Torah places the episode of the discussion between Yitro and Moses immediately prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments. It serves to drive home the point of what it means to be a true teacher of Torah, Rabbi and a Jewish leader. Though it is undoubtedly important to know the law and to be able to apply it, there is far more to the role. A Jewish leader has the responsibility to maintain an attentive ear towards all and to connect with the people in their language. Though Moses did implement changes to the judicial structure as per Yitro’s suggestion, he re-organized only for the sake of practical application and efficiency for the people. His fundamental outlook on the function of a Jewish leader and their need to stay close to the people remained intact.

This lesson is similar to the vision which Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook had for the future of the Rabbinate in the Land of Israel. He writes, “Now that we desire to reestablish and repair our national lives, we must also implement penetrating reforms into the rabbinate of the Land Of Israel, to revive this essential spiritual force…Rabbis should and must play a prominent role in Israel’s national revival. They must work with the people in every facet of the building of the Land and the national restoration… A continuous, mutual connection must exist between the rabbinate and every productive force which exists within the land….[Rabbis must] constantly strive to bring people closer to each other and introduce a spirit of peace between all factions and parties, by way of the holy sparks that are shared in each and every Jewish soul.” (Ma’amarei HaRe’iyah,-HaRabbanut, p.53)

When Jewish leaders and Rabbis are able to fulfill the example of Moses our Teacher and the vision of Rav Kook, they serve as a brilliant link in the chain of bringing the Jewish people closer to God. May we merit leaders who emulate these ideals, and under whose leadership the people of Israel merit to reach an even greater connection to the Divine.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator. He is a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves where he serves as a battalion Rabbi, and is the author of the book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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