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Yisro: Of Magistrates And Kings


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The greatness of our Torah leaders is often vivid but occasionally requires illumination. Consider the exchange between Yisro and Moshe. At first glance we might mistake this episode for a simple conversation or advice from a helpful father-in-law. Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l, cautions not to diminish the depth of this dialogue. When understood properly, it is, in fact, revealing of the wisdom of both of these great patriarchs.

“And now hearken to my voice, I shall counsel you” (18:19).

We should not be so naive to think Moshe himself could not have thought of the plan of appointing officers. The Elders of the sons of Israel in Egypt were an official and recognized body, not mere old men as are found today in homes for the aged. It is certain that Joseph, in whose time the people had already increased, in his great practical wisdom ordained magistrates for his people. But Yisro’s counsel was given now for two purposes.

1. Moshe’s plan had been to elevate the people by temporarily superseding the system of magistrates, so that all the people should come to him personally. This was now especially necessary because the old order had been based on human logic, but now it had become imperative to yield the human logic to the divine dictates of the Torah. This necessitated a fundamental change in all procedures in every aspect of one’s daily life, and Moshe foresaw that difficulties were sure to arise.

The former judges had now been deprived of all competence. New judges would need to be trained, but even they might continue to apply the new Torah laws with the old logical system. The urgency of understanding that everything from now on depended solely on Torah moved Moshe to take the extreme step of being the sole judge and interpreter of Torah. Any other course could lead to disaster. Even Aharon, when Moshe was away on Sinai, decided to compromise for the sake of the people’s welfare. (Although logic is a part of Torah, it must be applied with strict Torah procedures.)

We do not know for how long Moshe intended to be the sole judge, but he certainly planned eventually to institute a system of general judges and local magistrates, as Hashem indeed commanded, but only after he himself had personally initiated them into the Torah way of thinking.

To this Yisro countered: Very true. But can you rely on a miracle (one not explicitly promised by Hashem) that you and the people could persevere in such an uncomfortable and tedious procedure, standing in line for days in order to gain an audience with you? You will surely wear away, but even if you do not tire physically, your authority will be worn away by personal contact with everyone; and the people will lose favor in your eyes when you deal with their individual idiosyncrasies and obstinacy and foolishness. Familiarity breeds contempt, and therefore not every individual should have access to you and take up your time with petty questions and problems.

2) Moshe aimed to create a noble nation (“a kingdom of priests” – 19:6) that would govern itself without much coercion by the authorities. Thus: “These were the kings that reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned in Israel” (Bereishis 36:31), because Israel did not need a king. “In those days there was no king in Israel, [because] each man did as was right in his eyes” (Shoftim 17:6).

The mitzvah of making a king was conditional: “If you say, Let me put over me a king” (Devarim 17:14) – from which it is clear this mitzvah depended on the time when you choose. “If you say…” is exceptional among all the mitzvos because to govern themselves by their own conscience (“Each man as is right in his eyes”) was preferable. Moshe therefore did not plan to subject the people to the scrutiny of a multitude of magistrates until some time had elapsed.

But Yisro countered: Are the people great enough to be so independent? Now especially, when beginning the new mode of Torah life, they require special surveillance: officers of tens, of fifties, of hundreds and of thousands. Until now they had been permitted to eat everything, they were not obligated by Shabbat or Yom Tov or by the numerous other laws of the Torah. Therefore the people must have tens of thousands of magistrates that supervise all the behavior of each person, in order to train them to become accustomed to the new existence as a Torah nation.

Moshe did not need Yisro to instruct him. Yisro was given the honor of voicing that which Moshe himself understood even better, and which Hashem also eventually commanded (Sifri, Devarim 1:9).

Compiled for The Jewish Press by the Rabbi Avigdor Miller Simchas Hachaim Foundation, a project of Yeshiva Gedolah Bais Yisroel, which Rabbi Miller, zt”l, founded and authorized to disseminate his work. Subscribe to the Foundation’s free e-mail newsletters on marriage, personal growth, and more at www.SimchasHachaim.com.  For more information, or to sponsor a Simchas Hachaim Foundation program, call 718-258-7400 or e-mail info@SimchasHachaim.com.

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About the Author: The Rabbi Avigdor Miller Simchas Hachaim Foundation, a project of Yeshiva Gedolah Bais Yisroel, was founded and authorized by Rabbi Miller to disseminate his work. Subscribe to the Foundation’s free e-mail newsletters on marriage, personal growth, and more at www.SimchasHachaim.com. For more information, or to sponsor a Simchas Hachaim Foundation program, call 718-258-7400 or e-mail info@SimchasHachaim.com.


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