Moshe's "Efficiency" Crisis
The Real Lesson Of Yitro's Leadership Advice
Soon after Moshe and his father-in-law Yitro reunite, Yitro gets a chance to observe the way Moshe runs things in the Israelite camp. And he isn't impressed with the way Moshe handles the people's legal disputes. Moshe is the sole judge, spending all his time hearing claims and forcing hundreds of people to wait for hours for a chance to be heard. So Yitro offers an alternative: appoint other judges, and have them handle the small stuff.
Is this story in the Torah just to teach us about the importance of efficiency? Maybe. But if that's all it is, then why are there strange echoes to the story of the creation of Eve, all the way at the beginning of the Bible? Join Daniel Loewenstein as he explores the reason God decided man needed a partner, and how that relates to Moshe - and to us.
Hi! This is Daniel Loewenstein, and you’re watching Aleph Beta. Welcome to Parshat Yitro.
You know that classic stereotype about in-laws? How, try as you might, you can never quite escape their disapproval? You’re running your own successful business? Oh, that’s wonderful – but, you know, no one’s really heard of you… Timmy won the science fair? He’s so brilliant! But why aren’t you sending him for piano lessons? Fortunately for me, my in-laws really never pull anything like that. But I’m not sure Moshe was so lucky.
The Relationship Between Moses and His Father-In-Law YitroPicture it: word is spreading about the ten plagues, the split sea, the great victory over Amalek. Moshe’s father in law, Yitro, hears all about it, and sets out to reunite with his son-in-law in the wilderness. He arrives, family in tow, and oohs and ahs at all the stories. But then, the other shoe drops: his second day in the camp, he sees Moshe standing by himself, surrounded by throngs of people, helping to resolve their disputes. And he is not impressed; he tells Moshe:
לא־טוב הדבר אשר אתה עשה
What you’re doing is just not good. You’ll be completely overwhelmed.
כי־כבד ממך הדבר לא־תוכל עשהו לבדך
What you’re doing is too heavy for you to bear – you can’t do it by yourself.
And, of course, he has the solution: teach everyone the laws, and then find some high quality individuals – decent, honest, fair folks – and appoint them as lower court judges. That way, sonny boy, you can have a sustainable system for helping this people of yours with their legal matters, and everyone will be happy.
Except me. I’m not happy. Because this story really confuses me.
Understanding Yitro's Leadership Advice to MosheWhat’s the Torah trying to teach us here? That we shouldn’t take on too many responsibilities, and we might want to consider delegating every now and then? Well, that’s useful advice for those of us looking to be more productive. So is making good lists, proper diet and exercise, and a healthy balance of work-time and me-time – but the Torah doesn’t devote chapters to all of those. It doesn’t need to – they’re common sense. So then why is this story, which seems to be about nothing more than common-sense efficiency, in the Torah at all?
I think there are actually some clues in the text that signal there’s something deeper going on here. For instance, look at the very beginning of Yitro’s critique: לא־טוב – This thing that you’re doing is not good. Does that remind you of anything? Maybe way back at the beginning of Genesis? God actually says לא־טוב, in the Garden of Eden story, right after creating man: לא־טוב היות האדם לבדו – It is not good for the man to be by himself. Interesting.
Now I grant you, לא־טוב doesn’t sound like such a unique phrase. So it doesn’t really prove there’s a connection between these two stories – but, if you think about it, aren’t the לא טוב’s really describing the same problem? In both cases, someone is all alone who shouldn’t be. Adam has no one with him in the Garden, and Moshe has no one with him to judge.
And that problem – the fact that they’re all alone – it’s actually described with the same word לבד: God declares לא־טוב היות האדם לבדו, It’s not good for the man to be by himself. And Yitro declares לא־טוב הדבר אשר אתה עשה...לא־תוכל עשהו לבדך, This thing you’re doing is not good...You can’t do it by yourself. They’re both alone, and it’s a problem: it isn’t good.
Is there anything else that links these two stories? I think so. Let’s go past the problems, and look at the solutions. God and Yitro both say that the way to fix the problem of being alone is by adding partners. Adam needs a partner, and Moshe needs partners.
Biblical Connections to Yitro and Moshe's StoryNow, you might say that can’t really count as an additional parallel between these stories; the solution to being alone has to involve getting some sort of partner – and I agree. But there are other links between the solutions. For instance, do you remember how Adam and Moshe get their partners? Let’s start with Adam – how does he end up with Eve? After God declares Adam needs a partner, the Torah says:
ויצר יהוה אלהים מן־האדמה כל־חית השדה ואת כל־עוף השמים
God formed from the earth all of the wild animals, and all the birds of the sky.
And then Adam had to play this strange dating game, to see if he could find a partner from among the animals. In the end,
ולאדם לא־מצא עזר כנגדו
Man couldn’t find a partner.
And that’s when God stepped in and created Eve. In other words, God didn’t just create Adam’s perfect partner right away – Adam had to search, he had to go wading through all the other life on earth first. And what about Moshe? Was it the same for him? Did he have to search for his partner judges? Yes, yes he did – Yitro tells him, אתה תחזה מכל־העם אנשי־חיל – look through the nation, and find from among them valorous people. In other words, Moshe needs to wade through the Israelites to find his helpers. So it’s not just that Adam and Moshe both needed partners – they also both needed to search for them.
And here’s one more connection: What’s the point of the partners in each story? In Moshe’s case, the role of the lower court judges is to help Moshe – to shoulder some of the burden of judging the nation. Is the same true of Adam and Eve? Not really, right? Adam doesn’t have to settle any disputes or judge anybody. The reason he needs a partner seems fundamentally different from Moshe’s. He needs a companion, someone he can complete and be completed by. And yet, fascinatingly, the Torah describes Adam’s partner as an עזר – a helper. Someone to assist him with something. With what? I don’t know. But something. And so, we have one more parallel – the function of the partners in both stories, surprising as it seems, is to be a helper.
So Adam and Moshe are both in a situation that is deemed לא טוב, not good; because they are both לבד, alone. And so they both are told to search for partners. And when they find them, their partners are somehow meant to serve as helpers for them. This seems, at least to me, like a really compelling list of connections. But what do they mean? What are these parallels trying to tell us? What could Adam’s need for a wife possibly have to do with Moshe’s need for colleagues? And, whatever these parallels mean, can they tell us anything about why Yitro’s story is in the Torah?
The Backstory to Yitro's Advice to MosheTo answer this, let’s try to understand that last, surprising connection we pointed out. Moshe and Adam both need partners to help them. That makes sense for Moshe, but what did Adam need any help with? If you stopped anyone on the street and asked them why God thought man needed a partner, they probably would’ve said that he would have been lonely otherwise. It’s what the text says, he was all alone! But that’s not all the text says; look at how God describes Adam’s projected partner: עזר כנגדו – a helper opposite him. Not an אשה, a woman, or an אהובה, a beloved, or a רעה, a friend, all of which would be better terms to describe someone meant to cure loneliness. Instead, she’s described as a helper.
...So maybe we got it wrong. Maybe the issue with man being alone isn’t loneliness. Maybe there was something else not good about man being alone, something he needed to accomplish that he needed help with.
But what could this mysterious task of Adam’s possibly be? It seems like all he was supposed to do was eat the fruit of the Garden. So...did he need a helper so he could stand on her shoulders, when the apple he wanted was too high up to reach? Did he need a second opinion about whether the tomatoes were ripe? What did Adam have to do, that was so hard it was “not good” for him to have to do it by himself?
I think the text may actually tell us the answer. When God declares it’s not good for man to be alone, does God just decide that in a vacuum? Or does something precipitate that? Is there something that happens that makes it a problem for man to be alone? Let’s take a look. Right before God decides to give man a helper, He tells him to eat from the fruits of the garden – with one exception:
ומעץ הדעת טוב ורע לא תאכל ממנו
“But from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat from it;
כי ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות
For on the day you eat from it, you shall die.”
And the very next words are לא טוב היות האדם לבדו.
So first God says, “Adam, stay away from the tree of knowledge. It can kill you.” And then, right after, God says, “Hey, you know what, Adam really shouldn’t be alone – he needs help.” Well, doesn’t that seem to suggest that the reason man needed a helper was to help him avoid eating from the tree? I know, it seems like a bizarre thing to suggest – after all, look how things turned out. The exact opposite happened – Adam’s partner actually fed him the forbidden fruit. But the text really does seems to be pushing us in this direction.
Okay, so Adam’s עזר כנגדו is meant to help him avoid eating from the tree of knowledge. But how? I mean, what is she expected to do? God didn’t decide to create a bouncer to stand guard over the forbidden tree. He just created a second human being. Is a partner, by simply existing, somehow supposed to help man resist the tree?
I think so, based on an idea I heard Rabbi Fohrman share a few times about what exactly the tree of knowledge was. Here’s how I understood what he said: All throughout the beginning of Genesis, God is creating things, and then calling them “טוב.” And that makes sense because when you’re in charge of something, when you’re a CEO or an author or an architect, it’s your job to decide what’s good and what’s bad – what matches your vision for how things ought to be and what doesn’t. And that’s what it means to “know” טוב and רע, good and evil – it’s not so much knowledge, as it is the perspective that I am the master, that I am in the position to decide whether things are how they ought to be or not. And even though in our own, small, human ways we wear that hat sometimes, ultimately, in terms of the big picture, that hat belongs to God. He is the real Master. This world is His world, and we’re meant to recognize that it’s His decision how things ought to be. We’re not supposed to claim knowledge of good and evil for ourselves – we’re supposed to leave that fruit on the tree.
Now let me ask you – what kind of person do you think would have the hardest time resisting the tree of knowledge? What might make it hard for someone to recognize there’s a higher power above? Well, I think two things might contribute to that. The first is power. If you don’t really hold that much power or authority, if you’re usually the one on the bottom, then life itself reinforces the fact that there’s something above you. But if you’re at the top of the pyramid, if you have power over others, then you don’t have the benefit of that natural check on your perspective. And that can make it easy to believe you’re really at the top.
And the second thing is solitude. Because even if you have power, if that power is shared with others, that also forces you to realize you’re not the master. You can’t pretend you’re the head honcho if, say, you’re a senator or board member, and dozens of people are just as powerful as you. But if it’s just you at the top – as a president, or a CEO – if you’re given authority, expected to lead, and people comply with what you say, then all your life experiences are pushing you to think of yourself as the final arbiter of right and wrong. Wouldn’t that make it hard to remember there’s a moral code to which you’re beholden? And I think the headlines confirm it – they’re filled with powerful, solitary figures who’ve managed to convince themselves they’re entitled to anything.
Perhaps that’s why a partner was deemed necessary for Adam to have a chance at avoiding the tree of knowledge. Because without a partner, alone in the garden without an equal, free to eat almost anything he wanted, how long could Adam be expected to follow the rules? But with her presence to remind Adam he was not unique – that he wasn’t the master – Eve at least in theory gave Adam a chance.
Now let’s bring this all back to Moshe and Yitro. I think we’re in a position to understand what these parallels are trying to teach us.
The Meaning Behind Yitro's Advice to Appoint LeadersOn the surface, Adam and Moshe face two very different struggles. Moshe seems to be dealing with an efficiency problem. He’s overburdened, and needs to distribute some of the labor of judging to other people. And Adam seems to be dealing with the problem of resisting the lure of the tree of knowledge. But maybe underneath the surface, these struggles are not so different. Think about Moshe’s situation: he was in a position of great power over the Israelites, and he was doing it all alone. Power and solitude. The recipe for disaster. And so perhaps, despite the very different circumstances, Moshe was at risk of eating from the tree of knowledge, in his own way, as much as Adam had been. He was on the path to believing he was the master over the Israelites – not just the one to explain good and evil, but to actually decide it.
Perhaps the reason the Torah recounts the story of Yitro the way it does is to direct our attention to Adam, to tell us that the deeper issues in both stories are one and the same. No matter how great a man is, no matter how he ends up justifying it to himself, if he holds power, and holds it alone, he will face the delusion that his power, his authority, is greater than it truly is. And an essential way to combat this delusion is to have a real partner – in Adam’s case, Eve, another human; and in Moshe’s case, moral partners, people who wouldn’t be swayed by convenience or gain, who would deal with all people, Moshe included, with honesty and integrity.
So in the end, did we arrive at a lesson all that different from “Don’t do everything by yourself?” Maybe not. But the reason is the real lesson. It’s not about efficiency or sustainability. It’s about the effect of being too alone. The more often others rely on us, or we rely on ourselves, to make important decisions – the more trust we develop for our own intuitions – the more likely we are to come to over trust in them, and to believe we’re greater than we are. But if we surround ourselves with people we can respect, people who can keep us humble and honest, who won’t just tell us what we want to hear – if we acquire the right kinds of partners for ourselves – then we can be the right kind of partners with God.