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Jethro and Moses

Sarei Asarot Known to Their Tribes

In 18;13, Yitro sees Moshe attempting to meet the needs of the people. The people line up, waiting their turn with their leader, morning to night. It shows Moshe’s great dedication, but dedication isn’t everything. A classic father in law, Yitro knows a better way, and this time, he is right.


He tells Moshe to set up a hierarchy of officers, Moshe leading from the top, with people at every level assigned to take care of problems that do not need higher-ups’ involvement. He recommends officers of a thousand, a hundred, fifty, and ten.

To me, that seems a lot. As Rashi notes, it translates to 78600 sarim, about thirteen percent of the population. Is it, though? While considering this piece, I found out that across the United States, nearly 24 million people work for government (national, state, or local) or the military, about fifteen percent of the workforce, and this proportion is much lower than it was fifty years ago.

Still, I would think the desert society was significantly less complicated. Sheer numbers aside, I also wonder about the apportioning; having an officer/judge for every ten people seems to take it to a very granular level. In the US, government workers serve many more than ten people, there are just many jobs to be done. Postal workers deliver mail to many more than ten families, teachers deal with many more than ten children, and so on. Why would society need officers of ten?

I propose the answer lies in a qualification Moshe mentions only in the slightly different version of the story he recounts at the beginning of Devarim. There, he says he told the Jews to find officers for themselves, and they agreed (to Rashi’s chagrin, because they should have preferred the unmediated leadership of Moshe). When telling them what to find, he included the idea of yedu’im le-shivteikhem, known to your tribes.

People need leaders who know them, I think he or Yitro realized. In representative democracies today, I believe we suffer for our leaders not knowing us except in the aggregate. A US Congressperson represents at least 500,000 people. Yitro seems to have understood that the lowest level of leader should have a real relationship with the people he (in the time of the Torah) is leading. Imagine if every time you voted for a leader, you knew him/her personally (I suggested a way to do this even in our times in my recent novel, The Making of the Messiah, 2048).

Here’s another example: before the sin of the Golden Calf, the plan seems to have been for the bekhorim, the first-born, to serve as the kohanim, the priests. It was Plan A, I suggest, because it would have meant almost half of families (excluding female first-borns, C sections, and miscarriages) would have had a priest. Since the prime role of kohanim was to represent Gd among the people (Temple service took up two or three weeks a year, and only a day or two of those weeks was necessarily spent in the service itself), Jews knowing their priests as family had the intimacy I see the Torah preferring in its leadership.

Imagine if every time you had a problem with government, you could turn to someone you knew, within a circle of your ten closest friends, who was empowered to either solve the problem or send it up the line (and track it to a solution).

Government needn’t be distant even in large societies, Yitro taught us. For Moshe to teach and/or judge the people in the fullest proper way, he would have to learn each person on the fly, quickly get a sense of the litigants in a case, the students in a shiur, and try to individualize his approach. Yitro’s system inserted that element in the setup, leaving more time to address issues as they arose.

That’s what Moshe’s father in law taught him in this week’s parsha.

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Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein is a teacher, lecturer, and author of both fiction and non-fiction. His murder mystery, “Murderer in the Mikdash,” depicts a Third Temple society, and his most recent book, “As If We Were There,” shows how the Pesach experience should be a daily factor in our lives. R. Rothstein teaches for the Webyeshiva and guest-lectures out of Riverdale, N.Y.