Yitro: Judaism’s Three Branches of Government
There is a joke about a Jew in Soviet Russia who came to request a visa to move to Israel. Sitting in front of three KGB agents, he was asked: “Mr. Abramsky, are you missing anything materially here in mother Russia?”
I cannot complain, he replied.
“Are you missing anything religiously here in mother Russia?”
I cannot complain, Abramsky said.
“Are you missing anything socially?”
I cannot complain, he said.
“So why do you want to leave for Israel?” the KGB officers asked.
“Because there I can complain,” Abramsky replied.
In this week’s Parsha, Yitro arrives in the desert to see his son-in-law Moses, and one of the first things he seems to be doing is complaining. He does not like the way things are done. Yet, unlike many episodes in the desert, Yitro’s words are taken very seriously.
After seeing Moses judging the Jews from dawn to dusk, Yitro tells Moshe it will be impossible to keep up with such a pace of work. Moses tells Yitro the work he is doing is indispensable. He judges the people, teaches them Torah, and settles interpersonal issues. Nonetheless, Moses asks God, who concurs with Yitro’s suggestion, and has Moses set up a court system with higher courts and lower courts.
So how did Moses get it so wrong?
Clearly, to govern in any society, you need to have different levels of government. Clearly, to run any kind of successful operation, a leader needs to delegate. So why was Moses at odds with Yitro?
In his commentary on the Torah, Don Isaac Abravanel addresses critics in Spain who, at the time, pointed to these verses in an attempt to denigrate Moses and claim Moses was not a good statesman able to run a successful system of governance.
Responding to this, Abravanel points out that at this point, Moses was filling four different functions. He was teaching people the will of God, settling interpersonal quarrels, speaking to God for them, and leading them in the desert. What Yitro did not know in the desert—which Moses did know—was that God was about to give the Jews the Torah and that a whole new system of laws would be given. Moses did intend to create a system of judges, but only after God will provide them with the Torah at Sinai.
Since Yitro did not know this yet, and Moses was not commanded to reveal this to the Jews yet, Moses focused on what was being done then and told Yitro he was doing it as a teacher and a prophet from God. Out of respect for Yitro, the Torah lists the judges as something initiated by Yitro.
Yet there is another big difference between Yitro’s way of thinking and Moses’s way of thinking. The rabbis famously comment on the fact that Yitro asked Moses to be the judge of “big” matters, leaving the “little” issues to the judges. When Moses returns from speaking to God, he rephrases the issue and tells Yitro the judges will be taking on “easy” matters, while Moses will address the “difficult” matters. In Judaism, we do not treat a case differently because it involves more money; we treat it differently if it is difficult.
Yitro saw in Moses one branch of government—a dictator who should have others helping him with his job. Moses saw a more democratic form of government. Moses calls the elders of the Jews, asking them if they want to receive the Torah at Sinai. Moses wants to wait until God’s law is given so that the judges who arise among the Jewish people do not judge based on their whim and instinct but rather on God’s word.