Lessons from Yisro

Towards the beginning of this week’s parsha (Exodus 18:13-27), something rather interesting occurred. Yisro, who had just joined the Jewish nation, observed Moshe acting in a manner that the fromer found troubling. Moshe, as leader of the Jewish people, was personally adjudicating disputes from morning to night.

Yisro didn’t like this arrangement, thinking that it was too much work for his son-in-law. Instead, Yisro suggested, there should be various levels of leaders each of whom dealt with a relatively small group of constituents. Simple matters could be resolved on the lower levels, and only the toughest questions would be dealt with by Moshe.

Moshe followed the instructions.

I think there are two important lessons we can learn from this.

  1. People are fallible. Moshe was the greatest leader of the Jewish people and, as a prophet, was unrivaled by those who came before or after him. But he, like all human beings, was fallible. Daas Torah or no da’as torah (and you might want to argue that this incident is irrelevant to that question because it occurred before matan torah), all people do make mistakes.
  2. Sometimes you need an outsider to tell you what to do. There were 3 million people Jewish people among the Jews before Yisro came, but it was he who came up with a workable leadership structure. People often get accustomed to doing something in a certain way, which may or may not be the best way of doing it. An outsider has the benefit of being unfamiliar with precedent and is sometimes more inclined to judge procedures on their own merits. Sometimes the simple act of thinking through a problem – and not just repeating what was done yesterday – brings you most of the way to the solution.
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