Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1 – 20:23) is read this Shabbat [Saturday morning, 1 February 2013]. It is one of the most important portions in the Torah. God delivers the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. He also assigns the Israelites the mission of becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. But that is not how the parashah starts. Jethro (Yitro in Hebrew), the Medianite priest who is Moses’ father-in-law (known as Nabi Schweib and considered by Druzim or Muwahidoon as their greatest saint), appoints himself as Moses’ teacher and adviser to tell him how to delegate his work load.
When I was first introduced to the late Arafat in Gaza, forty people were in the outer ante-room at ten in the evening waiting to see him to get his help or to have him adjudicate disputes — which could have even been about a neighbour’s barking dog. Arafat stayed up until two or three in the morning to hear his people and make decisions. This is a sure way to burn out as well as provide inadequate attention to the larger issues. Jethro had observed Moses working like Arafat and influenced him to change his ways and learn to delegate. Jethro advised Moses to pick honest, reliable, capable God-fearing men with integrity and assign each to make judgements for a smaller group of the Israelites. Moses listened and implemented Jethro’s suggestions.
You can be appointed with or without further checks by another body. John Kerry, John Brennan or Chuck Hagel have to be vetted and approved by a legislative council such as the US Senate. Moses’ appointees did not. But Moses was himself appointed. Jethro was not. Though Jethro lacked any formal authority, he had authentic authority because Moses saw him as a wise and experienced politician. God also appointed Himself. Like Jethro, God was viewed as an authentic authority. But God, like Jethro, could only be effective if those he advised accepted his advice as valuable; consent was a prerequisite. However, unlike Jethro, God had real authority because of the Covenant entered into between Him and the people. Further, God had the power to enforce His commands.
God chose the Israelites to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. God also chose Moses to be the intermediary between Himself and the people. God laid down the rules in accordance with which the members would conduct themselves. There is no explanation why these rules were chosen and not others, or even what some of the rules mean if controversy arose over their interpretation. Who, for example, is a neighbour in “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 19:14) Can you covet your non-neighbour’s house, wife, slaves and farm animals? You cannot lie about your neighbour, but can you lie about your enemies and even yourself?
The section is NOT called the Ten Commandments or the Chosen People, but Jethro, the first word in the portion. “Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the Lord had brought Israel out from Egypt.” (Exodus 18:1) But why does the story of Jethro instructing Moses in the importance of delegation and how and whom to delegate immediately precede the Israelites being chosen to be a Holy People and to operate as a community in accordance with the imperatives set down in the Ten Commandments? Note as well that it is Jethro who gives his benediction to God. “Blessed be the Lord” (Exodus 18:10). It is Jethro who brings a burnt offering and sacrifice for God (v. 12). But Jethro leaves for his own land (v. 27) before the greatest event in the Torah takes place (in chapter 19). The categorical imperatives of the Ten Commandments are unconditional in form but the Israelites achieving status as a Holy People is conditional on the people obeying and keeping the Covenant they made with God. Jethro misses all the fireworks, all the thunder and lightning, all the smoke as well as mirrors. What mirrors? And why mirrors?
Jethro taught Moses how to prevent burn-out; delegate small matters to others. However, he did not teach him that rulers as well as the ruled must be governed by boundaries, by a constitution, by a Bill of fundamental rights and freedoms. He did not teach him that there are limits in time as well as space; timing is everything. “You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death: No hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot; beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain” (Exodus 19, 12-13).
Whatever the prudential wisdom of Jethro, he did not teach the importance of the people giving witness to a basic set of laws and a Covenant. Jethro did not teach the principle of timing in politics. However, he did know and did convey the importance of creating a mandarin class to administer the law, Jethro did not teach that all the people, men, women and children, every last one of them, must give their consent and be bound by those laws as God instructed in the next chapter. But he did recognize that whatever the constitution, how and which judges read and interpret the Constitution determines outcomes and whether a law is just. For those laws to be just, interpretation must take into account the meaning of language as well as the historical context, intentions and ultimate objectives, the lessons of the past and the anticipated consequences of any result.
So why begin with the story of the encounter between Moses and his father-in-law and have it precede the thunderous and momentous revelation on Mount Sinai and the covenant with Israel to become a Holy People? Isn’t delegation and prudence far less important than categorical imperatives and fundamental commandments? As we see with the new Egyptian constitution, general consent to a Constitution is crucial. But the way laws are interpreted and delivered and by whom and how is at least as important. After all, it is Jethro who recognizes that the Israelites were revitalized and united by receiving manna and the kindness of social justice. “Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the Lord had shown Israel when He delivered them from the Egyptians” (Exodus 18:9).
Further, recall that God came in a thick cloud. The Lord said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” (v. 19) God was not transparent. How did God’s coming in a thick cloud help people to listen to Moses and trust him? It was because Moses was able to interpret those words wisely and to choose others who could do the same. After all, Jethro who begins the section and first offers wise advice sets the example of revealing what was then hidden from the Israelites’ eyes — the importance of delegation. Man made in the image of God is as thick a cloud as God is. Wise interpretation and execution is by far the most important part of revelation rather than immediate access to God’s words. The image is not of a transparent and clear mirror but a cloudy and dense one.
This section is also about the commandment against worshipping idols. “The Lord said to Moses: Thus shall you say to the Israelites: You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens: With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.” (v. 19-20) Man is made in the image of God. Man becomes a co-partner in creation. Man does so by interpreting God’s commandments because the thick cloud is not clear, transparent and self-evident. But if man is made in that image, then humans must understand that their own interpretations and orders are not self-evident but must be interpreted and executed. And for that execution to be successful, the interpreters who give advice (Jethro) and the judges who are appointed must themselves be wise and judicious. One cannot rule alone. A leader needs wise as well as trusted independent counsel. Lackeys are useless in the long run. A leader should not make himself into an inert idol and only surround himself with sycophants.
We should all keep this in mind as we witness the Harper government in Canada turning civil servants into delivery boys and prudential implementers rather than a source of policy options and advice. Does this explain why Netanyahu and Harper are each others only and best friends amongst world leaders and why they purportedly talk to each other so frequently? In the Haftarah portion read after the Torah portion, Isaiah, not Moses, now serves as God’s emissary, but, like Jethro, he volunteers for the job. The job is not leading the people to the land of Israel, but warning them about the possibility of being cast out. According to God and his counsel of angels or seraphim, the people chosen to become a Holy Nation can also become a self-destructive and exiled one. If they persist on that course, contermporary Israelis can be “cast into exile for its collective sins and the holy land left empty and desolate.” (Isaiah 6:9-11)
“Go and say to this people, ‘Indeed you hear, but you do not understand; indeed you see, but you do not know.’” (Isaiah 6:10) A country may be successful in the short run if rulers accumulate power unto themselves but fail to both seek out and appoint wise advisers and search for and appoint wise and independent judges and mandarins. If a leader hollows out the judiciary and the civil service, if a leader denigrates regulation that needs to be wisely introduced and then even more wisely interpreted and applied, then a country which may appear initially to be successful will end up on a self-destructive path.
[tags Jethro, bible, commentary, delegation]