Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Yitro 5762
February 2, 2002 20 Shevat 5762
Substituting for Chancellor Schorsch is Rabbi Joshua Heller, Director of Distance Learning and Educational Technology
This week we read parashat Yitro, whose primary focus is the revelation at Sinai, and the Jewish people's preparation for that unique event in the history of the Jewish people. Aside from several spiritual and ritual preparations, the creation of a effective system of leadership is an essential practical component of the readiness for this great event.
As the parashah opens, Moses' father-in-law, Yitro, sees him sitting morning through night, judging the people as they bring him even their most petty problems. Because God has given the Jews the details of only a few of the most basic mitzvot (Passover, Shabbat, circumcision), for all other questions of ritual and of interpersonal relationships, Moses is the sole source of divine wisdom.
Yitro, surveying the situation, observes that it is not a good thing for Moses to be the one and only gatekeeper between God and the Children of Israel. He says (Exodus 18:18), "Navol tibol gam ata gam ha'am hazeh"-- the situation will certainly be harmful to Moses and the Jewish people. The root of "navol" is open to multiple interpretations; it might mean "to wear away;" or it can imply confusion, foolishness or debasement. All of those meanings are relevant here-- if Moses persists as the sole leader, he will himself be worn down, and the people, lacking leadership and instruction, will descend to base behavior, adopting foolish practices based on their incorrect understanding.
The giving of the Torah would both mitigate and aggravate the crisis. On one hand, putting the law in the hands of the nation creates a community that is knowledgeable and empowered. And yet, at the same time, each new law would raise even more opportunities for disagreement and opportunities for interpretation. The creation of an infrastructure of leadership is therefore a necessary prerequisite for the giving of the Torah. Yitro suggests that almost 15 percent of the eligible population be deputized, whether as leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds or thousands.
The selection process is bound to be difficult, and Yitro offers detailed guidelines, which are still relevant for us today. He says (Exodus 18: 21), "You should choose
mikol ha'am - from among all the people
anshei hayil - men of valor
yir'ei Elohim - God-fearers,
anshei emet - men of truth
v'sonei betza - haters of ill-gotten gain."
Each of these criteria is vital not only for the tribal chieftains of Moses' day, but also for the leadership of our own communities. First, Yitro suggests that leadership be drawn from amongst all the people. Leadership is not to be determined by one's parents or social station, but by one's own abilities. Of course, we are fortunate to live in a generation which has taken this principle one step further and recognizes the leadership capabilities of both men and women.
The next criterion, anshei hayil (men of valor), is translated by many commentators, including Rashi, to mean wealth, rather than the valor in battle that is sometimes associated with the word hayil. This meaning of the word is reflected in the last chapter of Proverbs (31:10-31), which describes an eshet hayil , a phrase usually translated as "a woman of valor." A surprising number of the meritorious attributes ascribed to her are financial in nature-spinning, weaving, and selling the resultant textiles, skill in trade and in bringing bread from afar. Yitro would say that a leader must have the financial security to, at the very least, be immune to financial temptation or even more than that, the resources to put his money where his mouth is.
Yirei Elohim (God-fearers) evokes those who have a rich theological sensitivity and can exercise spiritual leadership--in our own day, the rabbis, cantors and others educators who ideally serve as models of piety.
With the phrase anshei emet (men of truth), Yitro was speaking, on the most basic level, of those who were known for their honesty. In an intellectual context, this characteristic takes on an added dimension in our own day. Those who apply rigorous, objective methodologies to Judaism's sacred texts and traditions will sometimes uncover historical truths or realities which are not consonant with traditional views. We think of these scholars as living in an "ivory tower," isolated from society's practical considerations. In fact, these discoveries are essential, because they challenge us to continue to strive for Jewish beliefs and practices which are both authentic and intellectually honest.
The last category, sonei betza (haters of ill-gotten gain), is perhaps the most basic. It is more than just a hatred of graft or corruption. Rather, it reflects a commitment to social justice, and the ability to appreciate moral distinctions which might not be discernable from the letter of the law.
Yitro intended that the criteria would be applied conjunctively. Each leader would have to be a renaissance man--a spiritual leader, a sage, a righteous person and wealthy enough that he could not be swayed by financial pressure and could even engage in acts of philanthropy. This is a difficult standard to apply: the Talmud (Gittin 59a) teaches that from Moses' day to the end of the Talmudic era, there were but three leaders who combined "greatness and Torah in one personage," and later Jewish history, let alone our own generation, has seen very few such leaders.
Instead, people with different strengths must join together to create a vital community. It is not easy to harmonize these different interests. Religious and intellectual truth, social justice and financial responsibility each proclaim their own absolute values, and often a community or organization will value one model over the others, sometimes with unfortunate results.
The giving of the Torah was a defining moment in the formation of the Jewish people, but it could not take place until the nation was ready to receive it. Today too, we need each other-the pious and the philanthropic, the scholars and the social activists--to form a complete and healthy community. It is only when we work together and acknowledge the gifts that others bring to the joint effort that we, like our ancestors at Sinai, become worthy of the gifts of Torah.