Parshas Yisro – Moshe’s mistake

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By Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld

At the beginning of this week’s פרשה, יתרו lays out the perfect delegation plan to Moshe for the newly formed Jewish judicial system. It’s interesting that there is one other place that Moshe receives a delegation plan, in פרשת בהעלתך when Hashem has Moshe set aside the 70 זקנים who would share the responsibility of leading the nation. If we put these two stories side by side, there are many more parallels than just the fact that they are both delegation commands, that emerge in a very specific pattern. Let’s take a look and see where it all points to.

יתרו sees the whole nation standing around Moshe waiting on their feet for their turn to speak to him, and he questions Moshe, what are you doing? Moshe explains that he is ruling over civil court cases between two parties and giving the judgment by way of prophecy from Hashem. יתרו then responds with his plan of how to divide responsibility. I would like to highlight 7 phrases that are used which we will see mirrored in the second story regarding the 70 זקנים.

1-      לא טוב הדבר אשר אתה עושה – the system that you have is not good

2-      נבל תבול – you will become worn out

3-      כי כבד ממך הדבר – for this process is too heavy for you

4-      לא תוכל עשהו לבדך – you can’t maintain this on your own [you should appoint officers and delegate to each of them with their own congregation]

5-      ושפתו את העם בכל עת – [take my advice] and you will be able to judge the nation constantly [and they will not have to wait]

6-      והקל מעליך ונשאו אתך – it will lighten your load, and they will be able to carry with you

7-      על מקמו יבא בשלום – [if you heed my word, you will be able to judge effectively] and the people will come to their places in peace

After these seven points, we hear that Moshe listened to יתרו and did all that he had said. He then sends יתרו away and the Jews travel to הר סיני for קבלת התורה.

If we speed through 20 פרשיות we pass by מתן תורה, many laws regarding damages from one person to another, the command to build the Mishkan, the story of the עגל, the building of the Mishkan, all the laws of קרבנות and kohanim, the counting of the Jews, the story of the חנוכת המשכן, the laws for how to travel and set up camp, and the first travel of the nation, which brings us to פרשת בהעלתך. While we may have run through nearly half the Torah in length, chronologically in the story of the Jews we have only covered 7 and 1/3 months (Rashi says the story with יתרו happened the day after יום כיפור, so it’s 20 days in תשרי, חשון, כסלו, טבת, שבט, אדר, ניסן, and 20 days in אייר) from י”א תשרי until כ’ אייר. What happens in פרשת בהעלתך that is so connected to our פרשה? Let’s take a look.

After a שנה ראשונה with Hashem after our national wedding at הר סיני, we get told to travel. You can imagine the excitement, they have been commanded and rehearsed in setting up camp, Moshe made special trumpets, and all of a sudden, the Cloud lifts, it’s time to go. As Moshe tells יתרו, נוסעים אנחנו, we are travelling, and Hashem will take us through an 11-day journey in just 3 days! We are finally going to Eretz Yisrael, the centuries old promise is being fulfilled. But then it all crumbles. ויהי העם כמתאננים, the people start to complain, and Hashem’s wrath burns against them. Moshe davens, and the fire subsides, but then the ערב רב pipe up and get the בני ישראל to join them in complaining about the מן and the fact that they even left Mitzrayim at all! The expedited journey to ארץ ישראל comes to a halt and the next national story we have is the מרגלים which ends in the tragic 40 years in the desert.

At the point when the ערב רב rile the people to complain, Moshe throws in the towel. He tells Hashem that he can’t carry the people on his own, and Hashem commands him to gather 70 זקנים and that part of his נבואה and leadership would be delegated to them. The pattern of seven that we saw in our פרשה is mirrored in exact reverse order. Let me show you what I mean (I will put the parallels in the order which they are written but they will be numbered from 7-1 since the last aspect in our פרשה is the first one in פרשת בהעלתך).

7- וישמע משה את העם בוכה למשפחותיו – Moshe hears the people crying with their families, each man at the entrance to his tent. This mirrors the last element from פרשת יתרו that the nation will go to their places i.e. their homes, in peace.

6- לשום את כל העם הזה עלי – [Hashem, why have you done this to me?] to place the burden of this entire nation on me. The concept of carrying the nation.

5- כאשר ישא האומן את היונק – like a guardian carries a child. This mirrors the 5th element in פרשת יתרו, there he says you will be able to carry them constantly, similar to the way a mother is constantly carrying her newborn.

4- לא אוכל אנכי לבדי לשאת את כל העם הזה – I can’t carry this entire nation by myself

3- כי כבד ממני – for it is too heavy for me

2- הרגני נא הרג – [if this is what You have in store for me] kill me now. This mirrors the second element from our פרשה, when יתרו says you will get worn out and exhausted, which is really nothing more than the beginning of death as life ebbs away.

1- ואל אראה בראתי – and don’t let them see my “badness” (Rashi says that Moshe is truly saying let me not see their bad, but either way) this mirrors the first thing יתרו tell Moshe when he says, what you are doing is no good.

These parallels are hard to ignore, but where are they pointing us? It seems as though the first story ends off with Moshe agreeing that the load is too much for him and him passing along some of his responsibilities. The next story picks up from exactly where the first left off. But now, what seemed like a happy ending of everyone of everyone peacefully at home, now they are still home, but they are all crying in that same home setting that had been so happy.

In our פרשה, יתרו tells his son in law the plan, and then he says וצוך אלקים ויכלת עמוד, if Hashem commands you, then you will be able to stand, and the obvious implication is that if Hashem does not command you, then you will not be able to stand with this plan. The entire plan is contingent on Hashem, but we don’t ever hear what Hashem’s opinion of this plan is, Moshe just goes ahead with it. The Torah says, וישמע משה לקול חתנו ויעש כל אשר אמר, even if Hashem gave the approval, the Torah tells us that Moshe listened to יתרו.

יתרו came and told Moshe that he can’t do it, the task is too big. This laid the groundwork for the possibility of saying that “it’s too hard”, and the people use this excuse when they are about to whisked off to Eretz Yisrael, we can’t travel there in 3 days, it’s too hard. And then Moshe tells Hashem, I can’t carry these people on my own. I just can’t do it. In the structure of the text, it looks as though the disaster story in פרשת בהעלתך picks up from right where the story in our פרשה leaves off. And the parallels run all the way through the texts. What’s worse is that the second story Moshe’s נבואה gets delegated, which was on a deeper level of removal than his judgement abilities and responsibilities.

Now, I know what you are thinking, how can I say this? יתרו is the one who searched through all the עבודה זרה that there was in the world to find the truth, how could it be that his plan would wind up having Moshe unravel even on the level of נבואה when he only meant well? He was just looking out for the wellbeing of the Jewish nation and of his son in law!

I think one possible interpretation could be that Moshe came down from הר סיני gifted with the ability to relate to every single Jew on a personal level. They each had a special connection with Hashem and subsequently with Moshe. יתרו came in and questioned that and said that the Jews should have other people to come to for judgement. Maybe, Moshe should have said, dear father in law, I appreciate your well-intended advice, but you have no idea what I am capable of. Hashem chose me to lead this nation and I have a unique and personal relationship with each and every one of them. I can judge each case individually, and the people can handle it as well.

The message we may be able to take is that we are all leaders, and we all have those in our lives who have a “trickle down” relationship with. Sometimes, when we say that something is too hard there are others who will automatically apply that way of living to themselves.

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