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(Jethro) Moses' father-in-law said to him: 'What you are doing is not good. You will wear yourself out…' (18:17-18).
Moses listened to his father-in-law, and did all as he said. (18:24)
Jethro, the text relates, took note of the pressure Moses was under in dispensing justice to the Israelites. He accordingly advised him to delegate responsibility. Routine matters would be dealt with through a judicial hierarchy composed of male worthies. That would free Moses to focus on major issues, and in consultation with the Almighty (c.f. Num. 9:8) when necessary. And Moses duly listened to his father-in-law, and carried out his recommendations.
Yet Moses does not give Jethro a single mention when recalling the establishment of that system in the parallel text some forty years later (Deut. 1:12-18). Moreover, that recollection is used as a means of rebuking the Israelites. As Rashi (to Deut. 1:14) puts it, they should have protested at the prospect in accepting a substitute to Moses himself. Why then, did Moses accept his father-in-law's advice? And having acted on it, why did he not give credit where credit was due?
In response, it may be argued that Moses in the long run was not happy that he did listen to Jethro. True, Jethro's suggestions were made with the best of intentions: 'You cannot do this alone… may G-d be with you… choose men… of truth who hate unjust gain… they shall share the burden with you.' But he was a visitor. He did not know the character of the Israelite people.
He believed - sincerely - that a hierarchy of judges would be an honorable means of settling the numerous disagreements between individuals. But he did not consider why those disputes took place in the first place. After all, why should they have? The Israelites in the desert were well-fed and watered: there was no stress of earning a daily livelihood, or competition for scarce resources.
Yet they still found reasons to quarrel amongst themselves. That was in the character of the Israelite people. It was that trait that needed to be corrected, not Moses needing to go too far into overtime. As Moses exclaimed some forty years later: 'How can I alone bear your troublesomeness, your burdensomeness, and your quarreling?' (Deut. 1:12)
Perhaps Jethro did give the wrong advice. For having to stand long hours in line for Moses' attention would have encouraged people to settle differences between them 'out of court', which would have been the appropriate action in most cases. As a result, the lines of people to see Moses would become shorter… By contrast, Jethro's advice, however well meaning, was inappropriate in the long run. It actually encouraged a negative trait in the Israelites: litigiousness, tendencies to argue, to quarrel.
A humble person can be overawed when receiving sympathetic and well-intentioned guidance from someone he respects and looks up to. But the mentor is not always right. The advised often has a much more intimate knowledge of the situation, and unlike the advisor, has to suffer the consequences when things go wrong.
As Moses found after forty years experience with the Israelites in the desert: 'How can I alone bear your troublesomeness, your burdensomeness, and your quarreling?' It was the basic character that needed attention, not the contents of the numerous interpersonal disputes…
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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