Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, hears the news of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, and decides it is time to reunite his son-in-law with his family, whom he had evidently sent away. Overjoyed, Moses and Jethro spend the evening catching up, with Moses filling his father-in-law in on the details of God’s miraculous intervention. Jethro brings sacrifices of appreciation to God, saying he now understands the God of Israel is greater than all other gods. The men break bread together, along with Aaron and the elders of Israel.
After a night of celebration, Jethro is stunned to find that Moses spends his time all day, every day, judging cases for the people. He points out the inefficiency of the system: “Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee; for the thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.” (18:18) Instead, Jethro suggests, Moses should appoint representatives, wise and honest men, to judge straightforward cases, coming to him only when the matter is beyond them. Moses should spend his time teaching and guiding the people in the ways of God so that they know what is expected of them.
Moses takes his father-in-law’s wise advice, appointing leaders over tens, hundreds and thousands of men. Matters that cannot be decided by a lower judge get passed up the ranks until the truly complicated cases are brought before Moses. When Moses himself doesn’t know the answer, we discover later in the Torah, he turns to God Himself.
When Jethro advises Moses on setting up what is essentially a court system, he tells Moses, “If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people also shall go to their place in peace.” (18:23) The Israel Bible cites Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, who points out the asymmetry in the verse: if the verse were merely telling us the people would go home faster, it should say “their places” (the homes of the individuals), rather than “their place” (implying a common location). The Rabbi explains that the verse is actually hinting that this system of justice will allow the nation to arrive in its place — the Land of Israel — in peace, as the verse in Isaiah states, “Zion shall be redeemed with justice” (1:27).
Virtual Classroom Discussion
Jethro is identified as “the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law” (18:1), clearly indicating he is considered a gentile. However, he makes a significant contribution to the system of Torah law that continued as long as the Jewish people had their own court system. Based on this story, how does the Torah envision the relationship between the Children of Israel and the other nations? What made Jethro so respected?
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