Thursday, January 27, 2005

II-5 Yisro Jethro-The Man At The Top

II-5 Yisro Jethro 27 Jan 2005

Torah: Ex 18-20:23
Haftorah: Is 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6


1. Ex 18:1-12
2. Ex 18:13-23
3. Ex 18:24-27
4. Ex 19:1-6
5. Ex 19:7-19
6. Ex 19:20-21:14
7. Ex 20:15-23


Jethro comes to meet the Israelites camping under Mt Sinai.When he arrives in the camp, he discovers a strange thing. Moses is sitting outside his tent arbitrating the complaints of the Israelites. One man; six hundred thousand complaints. "What's this?" asks Jethro as he scans the long line of would-be complainers. Jethro advises Moshe in how to set up a legal system with upper and lower courts that are accessible by the common meat-grinder. Later, Moshe ascends the mountain and returns bringing the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel, establishing the basis of the social system, giving equal space for divine and human relationships.

In Focus:

Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods, yes by the results of their very schemes against [the people]. And Jethro, Moses; father-in-law, brought a burn offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses' father-in-law.

Ex 18: 11-12

But Moses' father-in-law said unto him, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

Ex 18:17-18

The man at the top

They stood in line. Moshe's tent was on the opposite side of the camp, so they had to get up before the sunrise to get there before all those others. Really, it seemed injust. So unfair, but that's the way it stood. They were on the fringe, the outer limits of society. By the time they arrived, five hundred others had already taken their place in line. It was really worse than trying to get tickets for the World Cup Playoffs because no seats were guaranteed and after standing in line all day, they might have to return tomorrow. Almost as bad as the Czech Foreign Police when you thought about it.

And yes, the slavery of Egypt was far behind them, but so were the succulent fresh green cucumbers and the sweetness of mint. Here all you could taste for miles was sand. Not a palm tree in sight. What is freedom when you're standing in a desert with the sun scorching your back? What value did all that Egyptian gold have when there was no market for barter and trade, when stomach rumbled with emptiness like battered jeeps sucking out the last drops of petrol from their tanks? They camped across from Mt Sinai, awaiting the latest revelation from their revered (or reviled) leaderwho sat from morning until late at night before his tentflap, arbitrating disputes of the people. "He's the one," they said. "He's the one in charge of this parade. He's the head of the line, the man at the top. He's got the inside information." That's why they stood there for hours after hours until hours stretched from sunrise to sunset into days and weeks to present their disputes.

Until Jethro came.

What did Jethro do? He revolutionized society. An outsider, he immediately saw the obvious flaw: the long lines winding about the camp and the disgruntled children being constantly reminded to stand still. He brought fresh insight with practical advice, advising Moshe to establish upper and lower courts with judges drawn from the rank and file to preside over them. What kind of men? Capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Four definitive qualifications: capable, God-fearing, trustworthy and despising ill-gotten gain. Four qualities that make leaders of men who can stand against tyrants in their time, who will not receive gifts or bribes behind their backs, or arrange kickbacks and government contracts amongst their friends; not those who have hidden investments in the Wall Street Stock Market when they sit on the bench to arbitrate the violations of corporate behemoths; not those who put themselves above the law or believe themselves to be the ultimate authorities; but those who live with an eye towards heaven, knowing that the ultimate hope of man is worms.

Not Moses? No, Jethro, the Priest of the Midianites, did this thing. He heard about the splitting of the sea and the war with the Amalekites from afar and brought Zipporah his daughter and the sons of Moses, Gershom and Eliezer with him to join their father. Gershom because "he was a stranger in a strange land" and Eliezer because "the God of my father was my help and he delivered me out of the sword of Pharaoh," so they were named. It was Jethro, his father-in-law, who advised Moses about hogging all the authority to himself and made him see reason that a culture or nation cannot long survive built around a single ego. Just think of the chaos if Moshe suddenly had sunstroke! As it was we spent days waiting in line trying to settle a dispute over a stolen goat. It was ours, but the neighbors in the next tent claimed that it was their, but we'd recognize its mournful bleating anywhere.

Jethro understood the insecurities and needs of a fringe group. He saw the need for decentralized government and speedy reconciliations of petty disputes. Bad enough to be set on from behind by the vicious Amalekites, but we were being reduced to squabbling amongst our own, threatening mutiny already with people grumbling about not having water or enough to eat. They weren't used to all this freedom. People aren't made to sit about doing nothing, especially when their lives had been pre-planned from birth to death, making bricks and building great monuments to mankind. Not so much you can do with sand, even foraging for the animals was sufficiently frustrating to keep most folks complaining.

Jethro did it diplomatically, easing into the topic and then departing once he saw that the solution was in the works. He understood diplomacy, the light touch of giving sound advice without sounding supercilious or rudely condescending. He knew that law, regardless of how sublime, is only words without acessible courts in all seasons and for all people regardless of color, creed or birth. When you're in the midst of a problem, in the middle of a muddle, it's not always to see the way out and that's why it's ever so important to have the voice of an outsider sizing things up to provide the overall perspective. And through his advice, law shifted from the hands of one into the hands of all; the burden of one man became for us, the responsibility of all. The law became our contract with God.


Rabbi Yaakov Menken, Lifeline Yisro 5761
"And all the Nation saw the voices and the flames, and the sound of the Shofar, and the mountain smoking, and the nation was afraid, and they trembled, and they stood far away." [20:15]"

Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh would say: Be very, very humble, for the hope of mortal man is worms. Pirkei Avos 4:4

Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of transgression: Know what is above from you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds being inscribed in a book. Rabbi Judah HaNasssi Pirkei Avos 2:1

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger, Yitro: Portable Holiness
My Jewish Learning

Uri Ayalon, Yitro: A System of Justice and the Details of a Moral Life
My Jewish Learning

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger, Mishpatim: Critiquing our Leadership


Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann, Olas Shabbos Yisro : The Dowry 5760
despising money on the qualifications of judges

Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann, Olas Shabbos Yisro: Echoes of Sinai 5761

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Green, Dvar Torah Yisro Ten Commandments 5758

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Green, Dvar Torah Yisro 5757
"And Yisro the Priest of Midyan heard all that G-d had done for Moshe and Yisrael; that G-d had taken them out of Egypt" (Exodus 18:1). Rashi asks the famous question: What news (in particular) did he (Yisro) hear .."

Rabbi Label Lam, Dvar Torah Yisro: The Birth of the Blues 5763

Rabbi Yaakov Menken, Lifeline Yisro 5758

And when the father-in-law of Moshe saw all that he did with the nation, he said, 'what is this thing which you do with the people? Why do you sit alone, with all of the nation surrounding you from morning to evening?' And Moshe said to his father-in-law, 'because the nation comes to me to inquire of G-d. Because when they have an argument they come to me, and I judge between a man and his friend, and I teach them the statutes of G-d and His laws." [18:14-16

In Suite:

Shemot / Exodus

II-4 Beshelach Ex:13:17-17:16

II-3 Bo Ex 10-13:16

II-2 Va'iera A Plague on You Ex 6:2-9:35

II-1 Shemot Who Made You Boss? Ex 1:1-6:1


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