Yitro: the first organizational consultant?
Rabbanit Gavriela and Rabbi Aviel Dahan are Straus-Amiel shlichim serving as communal and rabbinical emissaries in the Jewish community of Athens, Greece.
Was Yitro’s advice purely organizational, or did it also contribute to the inception of the Jewish People as a vibrant and growing community?
The portion of Yitro begins with a visit from Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, who arrives in the Israelite camp in the desert. Having heard of the miracles God had performed for the People of Israel, he decides to set out and meet them in person.
The Priest of Midian, as Yitro is called, had worshipped every possible form of idolatry in his lifetime. However, he now leaves everything and goes out to meet Moshe and the Israelites in order to hear firsthand about the great miracles that had transpired. After hearing from Moshe how God had saved the People, Yitro declares – “Now I know that God is greater than all gods” – and immediately sacrifices offerings to God.
The verses go on to tell us how Moshe returns to his daily chores during the course of Yitro’s visit, and how the former judges the people from dawn to dusk. When Yitro sees the state of things, he turns to Moshe and gives him a piece of organizational advice: Delegating responsibility by authorizing others to assist him in giving counsel to the people, and finding solutions for their myriad of questions and challenges. This would also fill the People’s need for some form of an encounter with God. Yitro emphasizes the fact that “the thing that you do is not good. Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee; for the thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.”
In other words, Yitro’s claim is that as long as the people acknowledge Moshe as the sole authority, and look up to him as being the only spiritual figure, they will ultimately develop a dependency that will lead to collapse the minute Moshe is no longer there. Moshe explains that the fact that the judiciary comprises none but himself is not only a matter of principle, but is also practical.
In terms of principle, the People view judgement as an encounter with God. In other words, when they turn to Moshe to render judgement, they do not only come to get a truthful ruling, but also to dwell in the Divine Presence. In keeping with this notion, the Mechilta DeRabi Yishmael says that accepting the judge’s verdict goes way beyond the simple understanding of what is wrong and what is right; rather, it is equated with an unmitigated closeness to God: “One who exercises a ruling of justice is like one who has become a partner to God in the Creation.” The fact that Moshe sat from dawn to dusk, rendering judgement to the People and delivering justice, was what enabled a partnership between the People and God.
The more practical reason, according to the Ibn Ezra, was that by means of the judiciary, all parties were exposed to the laws of the Torah. In fact, this was Moshe’s method of teaching the laws and the statutes to the People who had just left Egypt, and who would, in turn, give these over to their children after them.
Both of these reasons made it possible for Moshe to disseminate the Torah of God, and teach His laws to the People.
Moshe, who had grown up as a prince in the house of Pharaoh, was born into greatness and raised to be a leader. We can only assume that he knew how to delegate the responsibilities of leadership. However, from Moshe’s words, one gets the sense that he believed that he alone bore the responsibility of teaching the Torah of God to the People, and that only he could forge the desired closeness between the nation and the Lord. In other words, it appears that he believed there was nobody but himself who could really achieve this. Perhaps this feeling stemmed from the unique bond Moshe shared with God, or perhaps the reason was that the elders of Israelites and other prominent figures were not yet ready to take on such grave responsibility. (Shmuel David Luzzatoo on Shemot 18:24)
Notwithstanding the above, Moshe implements Yitro’s advice in full, having understood that Yitro’s words were uttered with Ru’ach HaKodesh, Divine Spirit. (Tzror HaMor on the Torah, ibid.)
In fact, the minute Moshe relegates authority to others, thus alleviating the grave burden of disseminating the word of the Lord and His Laws to the People, which thus far was his alone, another opportunity presents itself – those appointed to be “rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” become exemplary spiritual leaders and play an important role in the leadership of the people alongside Moshe. This unique setup was able to provide the necessary instruction for anyone who wished to learn God’s Torah.
The system proved to be all the more necessary following the giving of the Torah at Sinai, when an unmediated encounter between God and the People took place, thus making it possible for all those who wished to “inquire the Lord” to actually do so. And yet the People take fright in the presence of this Divine revelation and retreat from the encounter, perhaps attesting to the fact that they were unable to meet God directly without the proper mediation.
We would like to suggest that Yitro’s advice was not only “organizational” but was also a critical solution to a unique situation. Firstly, it allowed for the Anshei Chayil, the “men of valor” who were chosen by Moshe, to take an active part in establishing the new entity called the People of Israel, by transforming a collective of slaves, born into slavery, and led through the desert by a type of monarch, into a real nation with a new identity. These men of valor, who were chosen from among the people, receive a portion of Moshe’s wisdom, and help facilitate not only the new relationship forged with God, but also the new bonds created among the people themselves.
As such, these men also serve as exemplary figures, whose qualities should be emulated. The appointment of these men as leaders, created a whole new set of dynamics, one which reinforced the People by means of a leadership formed from within the congregation, rather than external to it. Some of these men of valor were responsible for thousands of Israelites, while others – “rulers of tens” – attended to a smaller group of people, serving as role models and engaging with diverse individuals, whom would otherwise not have been exposed to any figure of authority or exemplary persona.
In many respects, this new judicial setup, solved the utter dependence on Moshe, who was hitherto perceived as the sole leader figure, and the only person capable of transforming a nation of slaves into a kingdom of priests who will be a light unto the nations.
It follows then, that the counsel given by Yitro was not aimed at simply alleviating Moshe’s daily burden during the years of wandering in the desert. Rather, it was intended to achieve something far bigger: “compelling” Moshe to make room for the People to grow; creating the conditions for new leaders to emerge.
Responsibility which is decentralized enables all those who wish to seek God and inquire His will to do so. It also creates a forward movement and allows the community to grow as an entity. On the other hand, when wisdom is centralized and leadership is given to one individual, members of the community have no access to knowledge and become completely dependent on that one individual. This, in turn, leads to indifference.
Decentralizing wisdom and authority means placing trust in others. It also means creating a space where people are allowed to err, a condition which ultimately cultivates growth. This is also how perpetual forward movement is formed.
A community’s strength is measured by the room it gives each individual to grow and actively seek God’s wisdom. Oftentimes, we, as community leaders who bear responsibility, be it formal or otherwise, tend to focus our actions inwards, towards ourselves.
However, if we are wise enough to decentralize and delegate responsibility, we will end up with a whole that is much greater than the sum of all its parts. Responsibility given to one individual is very limited and, as such, generates less value.
This holds true for the People of Israel in the desert, for communities, for synagogues and even for individual households.
The Jewish community of Greece is one of the oldest in the world, boasting evidence of Jewish presence emanating from the Land of Israel more than 2000 years ago. The community is composed of Sephardi and Romaniote Jews (a local ethnic Jewish group known for its unique melodies and age-old traditions), and comprises some 3500 local members. The community has set up an organizational structure which includes Jewish educational frameworks – from early childhood to high school age.
There are also some 2000 Israelis living in Athens, and the local Jewish community has invested resources to help build a well-established Israeli community in the city.