February 2017, Parshat Yitro

Dear friends,

This week’s Parsha, Yitro (Jethro), is named after Moshe’s father-in-law. One might think it is no big deal that a portion of the Torah is named after a member of the royal family.

But Yitro was a most unlikely father-in-law for the most distinguished Jew of all time. To begin with, Yitro wasn’t Jewish. Secondly, he was an idol worshipper. Thirdly, he wasn’t just any shleppa in Midian, he was a member of the clergy. He was in fact Priest of Midian who spent his time fattening animals up in order to present the gods of Midian with the juiciest steaks around.

So why is the Parsha named after this scandalous figure? Because he singlehandedly, and literally, changed the entire face of Jewish communal structure. When he came along, Judaism was a family run business revolving around the central figure of Moshe. Yitro was responsible for turning this family enterprise into the largest, most efficient, organisation.

Before Yitro appears, every time someone had a question or people had a difference of opinion they would approach Moshe and seek his counsel. Now, even if he was bulk billing, how many clients was Moshe able to see on any given day? If he worked for 12 hours a day and saw every client for 10 minutes on average, he could potentially address six issues an hour, 72 a day. With at least a million adults around, even if only a tenth of them have any question or unresolved issues, it would still take nearly four years to gain an audience with Moshe.

Yitro suggested to Moshe that he find those possessing strength of character, haters of money, seekers of truth, and with incorruptible integrity, and get them to share the load. For the very petty issue, you go to the lowest official responsible for only 10 people. Something more substantial gets addressed to the official who is responsible for 100. And something serious you go to those entrusted with caring for 1000 people.

I’m not a mathematician, numbers hurt my brain. (Of course for those of you who have read the most amazing book Sapiens will know, that this aversion is evolutionary in humankind dating from the time we were hunter-gatherers and were able to relate to only a small number of individuals whom we knew intimately. If you have read the book and like everyone feel the need to talk about it, do join our Thursday night group discussion of this masterpiece that changes everything, starting in March. If you haven’t yet, there is still time). Still, it is easy to crudely calculate what efficiency this brought into the system. There are now 100,000 officials on the lowest rung, 10,000 occupying the middle, and 1,000 on the highest level. In one sound piece of advice, Yitro creates a situation where there is a surplus of advice-givers. There are now 111,000 advice-givers for 100,000 seekers.

Of course if there were ten times the amount of seekers than we previously imagined, at six clients an hour, it would take less than two hours to have the matter heard. On the other hand, before Yitro had his epiphany, an ancient Israelite may have spent the entire 40 years in the desert waiting his turn to ask a question!

Organisation is not a passion of mine. But even I cannot but stand in awe of this utter revolution in organisational systems. Once upon a time Moshe did everything. Now he delegated nearly everything and dealt with only what he needed to address.

Imagine the audacity. Moshe talks to God every other day, sometimes for 40 days in a row on top of a mountain. You’d think that this embarrassing father-in-law with his wild ideas would be hushed up and be told to stop reminding everyone of his existence. Instead, Moshe embraces the advice immediately, and alleviates his own burden as well as that of the community.

And we are told about it because there is one simple most relevant truth that is here conveyed. Even the greatest human being is vastly limited. Even someone who talks with God can take advice from others and that advice can literally change his life. And ‘others’ includes advice coming from someone whose religion, culture, and race, is wholly different than your own. Moshe accepted the truth from Yitro even though Yitro’s idol-worship was an anathema to his monotheism.

In a world so often divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’ we can truly appreciate the importance to maintain not only civility for the ‘them’ but also appropriately respect the value of their contribution. We needn’t agree on every matter. But we mustn’t disparage each others’ credibility and authenticity. When criticised, rather than shooting the messenger, remain open to change. Because maybe, just maybe, that piece of constructive criticism will revolutionise your world and bring peace and harmony to the rest of us.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur