A Righteous Convert Teaches the Jewish People about Leadership

Will Gotkin is a regular contributor to GTJ and a recent graduate of The George Washington University. The opinions expressed in this piece belong solely to Will.

Parshas Yisro records the most important moment in Jewish history – the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments. However, Parshas Yisro is named after Moshe’s father-in-law (Yisro), a former Midianite idolatrous priest. Why?

In the first line of the parsha, the Torah calls Yisro “Priest of Midian.” This is not meant by way of insult. Ohr HaChaim teaches that this is to express Yisro’s unusual virtue. Despite having been steeped in idol worship and an honored member of his community through these practices, he nonetheless proclaimed G-d greater than all the gods.[1]

Yisro left his home in Midian to join the Jewish people in the wilderness and become a convert. Rashi tells us Yisro was motivated to do so upon hearing about the splitting of the Red Sea and the war with the nation of Amaleik.[2] Why did the war of Amaleik – a conflict that diminished the Jews in the eyes of the nations and punished the Jewish people for slacking in their Torah study and doubting G-d – inspire Yisro to come and join the Jewish people?

When Yisro heard about Amaleik, he knew the Jewish people were in need of a boost of self-esteem and validation. He decided to give up his honor and prestige to come to the aid of the Jewish people. The implications of this were that a respected world leader of idolatrous religion recognized G-d’s mastery. This uplifted the esteem of the Jewish people in the eyes of the nations, undoing the damage done by Amaleik.[3]

We see another example of Yisro’s greatness later in the parsha. The Torah recounts that Moshe acted as a judge for the Jewish people. People lined up to speak to ask to settle disputes, etc. The Torah tells us he did this every day from morning until evening. But Yisro criticized Moshe for this, telling him that what he was doing was not good for his health, nor was it an efficient system for judging klal Yisroel! Instead, suggested Yisro, why not appoint judges from the wisest of the tribes to judge in local matters so that Moshe would only have to deal with especially difficult problems?  He concluded by saying that Moshe should run his advice by G-d before making a final decision. Moshe brought his father-in-law’s suggestion before G-d and G-d replied that Yisro’s advice was indeed the proper course of action. The question is how come Moshe didn’t think of this simple and obvious suggestion?

Abarbanel answers that Moshe already knew that a nation could not be provided leadership entirely by a single individual, but that he preferred to wait for G-d’s instructions as to what to do. Even though Yisro’s advice was nothing new to Moshe, he accepted it humbly and graciously.[4]

The Lubavitcher Rebbe approaches this question in a novel way. He points out that Moshe also seems to have made an error in judgment during the giving of the Ten Commandments (albeit a smaller one). Jewish tradition teaches that after hearing the first two commandments, the Jewish people – frightened by G-d’s voice and presence – asked to hear the rest of the commandments through Moshe. Moshe seems to have mistakenly believed that the Jewish people were ready to hear the revelation directly from G-d. His mistake is understandable. In learning Torah with the Jewish people he purposely taught with full intensity in order to teach the people on his own level. In this way, Moshe hoped to impart into the Jewish people the sensation of learning directly from G-d. He therefore lifted the people up to his level. Thus, he reasoned they were able to stand before Moshe from morning until night without tiring themselves out, because was able to do so.[5]

However, Yisro was able to perceive the Jews not how they existed as Moshe had elevated them to his level, but rather how they existed by themselves without Moshe.[6] He argued that one must prepare the Jewish people for a time when Moshe would no longer be around. As an outsider and a thinker who meditated on existence, he was all too familiar with the nature of spiritual growth and regression. This is one reason he empathized with the backsliding of the Jews shortly before they were attacked by Amaleik. His knowledge gave him to foresight to see that the people must be given a strong spiritual foundation that would outlive their teacher, Moshe so that they would not regress after his passing. For bringing this insight, G-d honored Yisroby naming this Torah portion after him.

[1] The Gutnick Edition Chumash, The Book of Exodus, 124

[2]Metsuda Chumash/RashiShemos, 227

[3]The Gutnick Edition Chumash, The Book of Exodus (based on Sichas Shabbos ParshasYisro 5725), 126-127

[4]The Gutnick Edition Chumash, The Book of Exodus, 128

[5]The Gutnick Edition Chumash, The Book of Exodus, 129

[6]The Gutnick Edition Chumash, The Book of Exodus (based on LK vol. 16, pp. 203-210), 129

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