Jethro - weekly Torah portion

January 25, 2019

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, arrives at camp with his daughter Zipporah, Moses’ wife, and his two grandchildren, Moses’ sons. Moses tells Jethro all that has happened to the Israelites and their exodus from Egypt. On the following day Jethro gets the opportunity to see Moses work. “Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening.” Jethro is flabbergasted of what he experiences there and exclaims, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” This catches Moses by surprise and he responds, “Because 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.” A worried Jethro explains the situation to Moses, “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.”

Jethro and Moses, as in Exodus 18, watercolor by James Tissot

 

If we take a minute here to comprehend what has transpired we can understand that this is a well-known situation where an outsider identifies a point-of-failure in an organization. Someone who identified such a failure and possibly feels somewhat close, or responsible, for the well-being of the organization and certainly to the person heading it, will explain to him that such a situation cannot last. This exchange, had it stopped there, would probably be disastrous. We are quite familiar with those who point out real or imaginary points-of-failure who will tell us that what we are doing is not good or will not work. They simply stop there and are unable to provide at least some kind of advice, not just an observation. It is not really enough to give advice, as it has to be practical and implementable for the particular situation. It further has to be presented such that the person received it can internalize it and act upon it.

 

Jethro does exactly that. Without hesitation he explains to Moses how, in his opinion, the burden he now carries can be eased. Firstly, he suggests, it is important to let people know what is expected from them, “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.” I think that there is an important take away learning from this idea that what needs to be done, the laws and ordinances are made known in advance to the people. The situation where the people are in a state of flux is not good and that requires Moses to always attend to each issue separately. It seems that the logic behind this is that when most people will know the laws then they will act accordingly, at least in most cases, and therefore will avoid issues that otherwise may have occurred. This way, through self-control, many cases will not have to go to trial, simply because of people will elect to behave properly, and as a result the load on the system will be reduced.

 

Nevertheless, we know the nature of people and it is clear that conflicts and disagreements will exist. For those cases Jethro suggests a hierarchy that will be served by “men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as 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.” The judicial system we experience today reflects this idea with hierarchy from a small claims’ court all the way to a Supreme Court. This way it is not necessary for the highest court in the hierarchy to address simple cases that can be handled locally, at lower cost and in a simple manner.

 

I believe it is also important to understand that this relates not only to issues that are brought before the courts for resolution. It is the way to go in any large enough organization. Good manager, worthy leaders, will push down the hierarchy any decision that can be handled at a lower level of government. This saves time and resource, reduces loads, and frees time for the leadership to handle the most critical issues of government. A situation where each strike escalates requiring the intervention of the prime minister is not the right way to manage a sophisticated economy. A corporation having its chief executive officer reading and approving every document that runs through the organization is hurting the company more than he is helping it to survive.

 

“Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said.” And then, “bade his father-in-law farewell, and he went his way into his own land.” This is also something a leader must know how to do. The advisor finished the job, and continues on his way. This allows the leader to attend to the business of leadership, potentially with new advisors and new challenges.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

Reuven Marko, 25 January 2019, 20 Shvat, 5779

 

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