DID JETHRO MISUNDERSTAND?
The advice that Jethro gave to Moses about how to delegate and administer justice is famous and was accepted by Moses, and implemented. Jethro was concerned that Moses was carrying the burden of the people by himself and it was essential that he had others who could assist him in his role.
Yet, Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik (1903 – 1993) raises the intriguing possibility that maybe Jethro understood what he was seeing?
The section begins with the words: “It was, on the following day that Moses sat to judge the people and the people stood (vaya’amod) before Moses, from morning till evening.”
When Jethro expresses his reservation to Moses, he describes the scenario as: “Why do you sit by yourself and all the people stand (nitzav) before you, from morning till evening?”
Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that the word, nitzav, has the connotation of standing in subordination and obedience, whereas amad implies standing to be close to someone you love.
Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that the Jews in the desert had few civil cases that needed adjudication. They were a classless society that had their daily needs met by G-d. However, there were many human tragedies that demanded Moses’ attention. The people had been in slavery for hundreds of years and were traumatised by the experience. They had been humiliated and ridiculed. Their children were thrown into the Nile. Their wives were raped. Now they were free, but they had to learn to live with that freedom. Many inmates of the concentration camps tell of the awful flashbacks they have to live with. Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau (Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and former Chief Rabbi of Israel) writes that when he closes his eyes “…he sees images from the Holocaust: screams, voices, commands in German, dogs barking, trains passing, even the boots of the Gestapo.” (quote: Jerusalem Post, 16.04.15)
The survivors of the Exodus were no different. As Rabbi Soloveitchik says (Chumash Mesorat Harav, Shemos, 153): “The people were displaced mentally, displaced physically, confused, frightened. They didn’t need a judge – they needed somebody to lead, to teach, and particularly, somebody to confide in. They clung to Moses; they wanted to be in his company. His mere presence was inspiring for them, his ways were assuring and calming, his words of wisdom enlightened them, drove away the ghosts of the past. His words of comfort and solace placated their pent-up emotions, healed their schisms and fused them with hope and faith.”