This week’s parsha, of Yitro, has two main topics. The first concerns the visit of Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses. The second is the revelation at Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments.
Certainly, the significance of Mount Sinai is central to Judaism, but is a weightier subject than can be discussed in a short essay. However, there are questions that can be asked: Are there any connections between the two narratives? Specifically, is there anything in the Yitro story that might be a precondition for Sinai, or even sets the stage for it? If so, what lessons are to be gleaned?
These questions presume a chronology — that Yitro’s visit occurs after the war with Amalek and before Sinai just as it’s laid out in the Torah reading. Indeed, Rashi and a number of other rabbinic commentators also discuss this. This is something we need to keep in mind. Just like a novel or film, the Torah can jump scenes with flashbacks and flash forward.
The most notable issues in the chapter with Yitro are the problems of the current judicial system. After his arrival, Moses is seen judging from morning to evening. This problem is a reflection of the character of Moses that he wants to make sure everyone is heard. Yitro rightfully asks, “What are you doing? You will surely wear yourself out and these people, it’s not right to do it alone.” His solution is to set up a lower court system with Moses only hearing the most difficult matters. One of the obvious lessons is to delegate authority.
As much as Moses wants to do right by the people, micromanaging will not accomplish that. Setting up a judicial system means speedier judgments, involving others and putting in place a system for his successors. It also leaves Moses the time and energy to lead the people and concentrate on other matters.
In the morning service, in the Amidah, the first of our requests is for binah (insight). Before we can ask for repentance, forgiveness, healing, etc., we ask for wisdom, insight and discernment. We need those qualities not only to be clear in our objectives, but also so we can truly involve ourselves in the prayers. Once we have that clarity, we are ready to tackle other tasks.
So, too, Moses needs to have the time, energy and focus for the work ahead, be it Sinai or other leadership challenges. But he also needs the reassurance that he has put into place a good and right organization so he can turn his thoughts to other matters. One of the chief complaints of the recent budget fights in Congress was the uncertainty. The fiscal standoff made it difficult to plan for the future. We don’t normally think of setting up a bureaucracy as a good thing, but here there are advantages for judges, those being judged, and society as a whole.
In the end, the Yitro lesson is not necessarily a direct requirement for Sinai, but a good one in general. It may seem obvious, but we all need a reminder now and then that we can’t do it all ourselves. We also need to keep in mind that taking care of the day-to-day will make it easier to deal with things that loom large in our future.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)