Drash on Parashat Yitro
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
Beit Shalom Synagogue
Adelaide, South Australia
This week's Torah portion is well known for the dramatic presentation of the Ten Commandments in chapters 19 and 20. The latter part of chapter 19 is particularly poetic; we hear the enormous claps of thunder and feel Mount Sinai tremble alongside the terrified Israelites.
However, the parshah takes its name from a fascinating and perhaps only tangentially related episode: Moses' reunion with his father-in-late Yitro.
Yitro is a fascinating personality in the Torah. He is one of only two non-Jews to lend their names to a weekly Torah portion (the other is the Moabite king Balak). Not only is he not Jewish, he is about the furthest from Jewish imaginable; he is a Midianite priest! That said, he proves himself to be a model father-in-law to Moses, and a wonderful model for what it means to be a mentor to others.
Yitro observes Moses sitting in judgment over the people from dawn to dusk. Whatever dispute--however petty--is brought to him. Yitro berates him: "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and those people as well." But rather than only offering a critique, Yitro goes on to offer practical, detailed advice. He suggests that Moses set up a system of appellate courts. Simple cases will be heard by the lowest level of judges. More difficult cases can be referred to higher-level judges, and the major cases will go to Moses himself. Yitro even lays out the necessary qualifications for these judges: "You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain." He lays out an elegant, well considered system that is easy for Moses to implement. And then he ends his suggestion with the words, "If you do this--and God so commands you--you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied."
Yitro is uniquely able to provide guidance to his overburdened son-in-law. He is family. But just as importantly, he is not an Israelite and so does not see Moses the way the Jewish people do. Surely all the Israelites must see Moses as close to god-like. Yitro knows him better as the man who married his daughter and looked after his flocks for many years. He shows love and respect, but is able to see the Moses, warts and all, and offer meaningful advice. He does so in language Moses understands, invoking God as the guide who commands that Moses set up this new judicial system. In doing so, he saves his son-in-law from burnout and makes the lives of all Israelites substantially better.
Mentors remain critically important to our society, and most especially while young people are growing up. People who have grown up in challenging circumstances often credit mentors--whether teachers, neighbours, or relatives--as crucial in helping them to believe in themselves and be successful in life. Yitro's example inspires each of us to reach out to others and see how we can play the part of Yitro for them.