Sometimes we give credit and praise to a nation leader for greatness they do not really poses. We tend to promote them to unthinkable heights, sometime so high that even they fall into the trap and believe that what people think of them is really true. Sometimes, despite of their greatness, they are unable to see their own difficulties and continue practices that they have developed over time. Often, sooner or later, they will completely fail in their mission, and then, in line with a human’s character, will blame the rest of the world, but themselves, of such misdoing. If they are lucky they will meet someone who while recognizing their qualities will be able to place a mirror before them and reflect reality to them. If they are even more lucky than that, then such a person will also be able to provide them with some useful advice for bettering the situation. And that is not enough, such leader has to be able to listen, internalize and then implement the lessons he has learned.
Moses takes his leave of Jethro by Jan Victors, c. 1635, from the incident in Exodus 4:18.
In the Torah portion of Jethro we learn of one such great leader, Moses, surly our greatest leader, who still is not described in our sources as the perfect man. Throughout the entire Torah we read about a person having many good qualities but also learn about his weaknesses. In this case, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, see that “Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening.” He wonders about this when he talks to Moses about what he saw, and basically gets the response that would today read something like ‘they cannot do without me’. In Moses own words, “the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor and make known the statutes of God and His laws.” Jethro is quick to understand the problem and explains that this cannot continue, “The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear out, both yourself and these people who are with you, for the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. He also gives him some advice, “You be the people’s representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God, 20 then teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do. Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them I leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. Let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.”
Moses could have easily, and maybe understandably, dismiss the advice he has just received and attempt to maintain the direct contact with the People. He could have continued to assume that he is a great enough leader to be able to do that kind of work for a lifetime. Moses greatness is that he “listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said.” He did not try to embellish, improve or invent something different, he took a basic and good idea and simply implemented it. He as a leader had a vision that saw beyond his lifetime, realizing that even if he could do it for his entire life, there would be an end to that simply for being mortal, and it is part of the leader’s duty to build an infrastructure that provides longevity beyond the lifespan of its leader. By establishing a hierarchy in the government of the People it is also possible to ensure its stability for prolonged periods of time.
For this system to also be effective there are also a couple of conditions. Firstly, there is a need to know that laws and the statutes, and secondly, it has to be run by those who are “able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain”. Knowing these laws and statutes, being persons of truth also involves the acceptance of “Jethro, the priest of Midian”, who is not part of this nation being formed and even distinguishes himself away from them, the People of Israel. We learn the Jethro “took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law before God.” Despite his different religion still a person having core values, one who can be a leader, be it of tens, of hundreds or of thousands, will not shy away from those who are different, push aside those who are strangers to him.
Today in the era of Twitter where Twitting is king, a time when a leader can easily bypass many hurdles and communicate directly with people, the Torah reminds us that a leader who does that will wear out. And not only the leader will suffer but so will the people being led by such leaders. Proper use of hierarchy, delegation of responsibility and decision making down the hierarchy, and an ability to wisely make use of goo
d advice are all required for long term success for both the leader and the People. This is the way to promise that “all these people also will go to their place in peace (in Shalom).”
Reuven Marko, 17 February 2017, 22 Shevat, 5777