Parshat Yitro by Aviva Novick
Parshat Yitro consists of two sections: the story of Yitro and the institution of the judges, and Matan Torah. The
question begs to be asked: what is the connection between these two sections.
Before we answer that, lets look more closely at the first section. When Yitro sees Moshe sitting all day and night,judging the people, he immediately realizes that the entire legal system would work better if Moshe had help. While we admire Yitro for his help, his idea is not all that unique or revolutionary. Why didn’t Moshe think of his idea beforehand.
The mefarshim point out that Moshe was not only judging the people. Moshe explains to Yitro that people come to him “lidrosh et haelokim,” which the Abarbanel explains as people asking about the future. It seems clear that at least some of what Moshe was doing could not in fact be done by others. Perhaps Moshe felt that since he could was the only one who could fill the all needs of the congregation, he should just judge alone.
Yitro’s suggestion forces Moshe to realize that even if he can do all of it by himself, that is not what is best for him or for the nation. The nation will be able to function better when the leadership includes more people. When every individual joins to help the collective, everyone benefits. This makes sense logically: if everyone is different and has different talents, then by everyone helping out, each job can be filled by the person who can do it the best. For example, Rav Hirsch says that while Moshe was the person with the highest level of niv’ua and ability to know God’s will, he was not necessarily the best legal mind, as is clear from the fact that he didn’t think of Yitro’s idea earlier. By having others join him in judging, the nation was guaranteed a smoother legal process.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (18a) does the math for us and comes to the conclusion that there were 78,600 judges! But even more impressive is that Tosfot points out that every person has a requirement to be learned enough, so that every 3 men are able to be a beit din. Judaism is built so that everyone can and should help out.
It is now clear why this story must precede Matan Torah. The Torah is not just a book of laws that must be upheld by the collective as a group. Each individual must keep the Torah, and only then can a society of ovdei Hashem be created. The chizkuni comments that the reason the Eseret Hadibrot were given in singular form, was so that every person feels that he/she is personally commanded by God. When everyone participates, the nation as a whole is stronger and consequently more unified. The idea of “the nation” is emphasized throughout the parsha: the word “ha’am” is a glaring motif throughout the Matan Torah story, and, as Rashi famously comments, when the Jews camp next to Har Sinai, “va’yichan” is written in singular showing that the nation was unified, like one man with one heart.
Many people in our society have Moshe’s problem: they are talented people and once they are in a position of power they feel that the best way for them to help is for them to do everything by themselves. Many have the opposite problem: they feel that problems are only solved by big leaders and that there is nothing that they can or should do to help. Parshat Yitro teaches us that neither approach is helpful; everyone must join together in order for society to function as best as it can and for progress to occur.