Torah Study: Yitro

Today’s parshah was Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23, which is the story of the giving of what we colloquially label the 10 Commandments. But it’s also the story of Yitro (Jethro), Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, telling Moses: “Hey, you know what? You’re trying to do everything. You need to delegate some of this work to other people.”

Let’s look at Moses for a minute, first. He’s been the (semi-reluctant) leader of the Israelites for quite some time now. He’s also his people’s head judge – everyone comes to him with their questions and their disputes to get them resolved, whether those are petty disputes or big ones. And, of course, he’s a prophet – he and God have conversations about the Israelites and what needs to be done or should be done.

You know, that’s kind of a heavy load to bear. When is he supposed to sleep, eat, bathe, spend time with his wife and kids? Is he supposed to do any of those things?

So when Jethro takes him aside and says, “Mose old son, you might want to establish a court system so that only the really big problems come to you to resolve,” Moses does just that.

Now hold that thought, “Moses delegating jobs to others,” while I bring in a few other thoughts and tie them together for you.

In our Torah study session today, someone brought up the question of when, exactly, the Israelites shifted to the belief that there was only One God – when did they actually adopt monotheism? Was it when HaShem stated here in Exodus that The Eternal was the only God and that the Israelites were to worship that God and no other?

This created a lively discussion. One of the participants brought up Maimonides’ conclusion that we cannot know the true nature of God, and it’s useless to try, so turn your mind to other things. Someone else pointed out that in the parshah (in verse 19:9), HaShem tells Moses “See, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will be able to hear when I speak with you and also to trust in you forever,” and asked why, after everything HaShem had already taken them through and preserved them from (the Egyptian slavery, the parting of the seas, manna from heaven) they would still need proof in order to trust Moses. My note here was that the move for the Israelites was to begin to have faith without necessarily having proof – that they were growing up and learning to hold contradictions in their minds, moving beyond concrete reasoning.

The third thing that came up in Torah study today was the question of the types of rules the Israelites were given in the 10 Commandments – some of them were “don’t do that” kinds of rules, or what we call “proscriptive law,” but others were “you must do this” kinds of rules, or prescriptive law. It made me think of the statement in the Ethics of the Fathers by Rabbi Tarfon, about tikkun olam: “You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to evade it.” Up to this point, most law was proscriptive – you are not allowed to do these bad things. But now, we have laws commanding people to actively do things that are good and that have good effects. To me, this means that HaShem was demanding active engagement with, and not just passive acceptance of, the Commandments (and indeed, the entire Torah). Again, this is demanding that the Israelites grow beyond their spiritual childishness and move towards adulthood, an active adulthood in which their behavior was oriented towards healing the world.

Now let me tie these three thoughts together.

Before humans knew about HaShem, humans figured that gods were like bigger people – but they still had to specialize. The work, in a sense, was delegated. This god took care of trees, that one took care of small animals, that one dealt with water and the other took care of weather. But no single god, in early belief systems, could possibly handle every process and every demand of the system we call the universe.

When HaShem became the God of the Israelites, that changed everything. A god that could literally handle everything? Unheard of. But that also put pressure on some human leaders to try to do everything, too. We still see this today – people who can’t delegate.

What I’m trying to get at here is, when we delegate, we admit we are not God. We are accepting that we have to complete a piece of the work and we’re not free to refuse that piece, but we are also accepting that we cannot do all the work ourselves, no matter how pressured we feel to do so. When Jethro points out to Moses, “You know, you have to give some of the work to others, here,” he was, in a sense, saying, “Hey, you’re the leader of your people – but you’re still not God.”

By taking our part of the work and taking an active part in the work, by following not just the proscriptive but the prescriptive commandments, we are admitting both the fact that we are not God, and that we are approaching the work as adults with the knowledge that we are not God.

I remember reading somewhere that Judaism is a religion for adults, not for children. This seems to support that point.


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