Moshe is arguably the most significant person in the Torah, whose impact as lawgiver, teacher, and savior has been felt across the world by most major religions for over three millennia. He was undoubtedly a brilliant and astute person whose measured thinking carried immense gravity. At a bare minimum, before any of the more expansive literature, the Torah’s plain text testifies that Moshe regularly spoke with God Himself and that he retained his sharpness and vigor until his very last breath.
Moshe had only just decisively rescued the Jewish People from Egypt and its formidable military. His newly liberated people had no government, so Moshe was the only person with the apparent authority to settle people’s disputes. Morning till night, he would arbitrate and help resolve problems. The trouble is, he quickly ran into a bandwidth capacity problem; people were coming to him non-stop, and it was too much. So the Torah introduces Yisro, who tells Moshe that it simply can’t be correct for there to be one sole arbiter of justice for so many people, and besides – it is simply exhausting! So Yisro advises Moshe to train some honest and competent men to share the burden, and they’d refer to Moshe any cases they could not resolve on their own. Moshe implements Yisro’s proposal, and the new organizational structure proves to be a resounding success. He is no longer stretched so thin, and Yisro goes on his way.
The conversation is almost funny to read – it just seems so trivial!
Sure, we can say that Moshe believed he was required to teach everyone himself – וְהוֹדַעְתִּי אֶת־חֻקֵּי הָאֱלֹהִים וְאֶת־תּוֹרֹתָיו – but he was limited by the same twenty-four hours in a day as anybody else who has walked the earth. Who hasn’t experienced a productivity bottleneck at some point in their lives? It is such a basic and common problem! Of course, anyone who’s been there recognizes that however basic and common, it is still a serious problem. Yet if the problem is rather basic, the Torah introduces Yisro, who proposes a solution that is equally basic and can be found in any textbook on management or organizational strategy: to optimize workflow efficiency, the individual at capacity must delegate tasks, distributing that work for others to perform to reduce bottlenecks and improve throughput.
None of this is difficult or groundbreaking stuff, yet it occupies a non-trivial amount of space in the Torah. Could Moshe not figure out to delegate effectively on his own? What’s remotely remarkable about Yisro’s solution?
Perhaps the answer is what we probably sense – there is nothing remarkable about the conversation at all, other than the fact of the conversation itself.
People wonder if the Torah takes a political stance on capitalism, socialism, or what have you – but here, in the very section the Torah is given, the Torah quite plainly states that it is not exhaustive; that it doesn’t purport to contain every single kernel of wisdom that could ever exist. Sure, it has an all-encompassing framework covering the full spectrum of human experiences; but it also leaves plenty of details for humans to figure out for themselves, such as effective government in this instance. Yisro proposed an idea about improving effective government administration, and the Torah clearly takes a pragmatic approach; if it works – great! While it might be intuitive to delegate tasks – that intuition still came from a human; it is not intuitive that the Torah endorses and adapts human intuition, which is what is remarkable about Moshe’s problem and Yisro’s solution.
What’s more, the solution didn’t simply come from a human; it came from a Gentile! At a minimum, the Torah takes a nuanced view on Gentiles here – Yisro is welcome; he correctly identifies a problem in Jewish society; he proposes an effective solution; his policy suggestions are embraced and successfully implemented. Aside from the pragmatic approach to government, this interaction is highly significant because, so far, almost every Gentile in the Torah has been a villain archetype; Paroh, Egypt, Amalek, and perhaps Yishamel, Esau, Lavan, and Ephron as well.
Given that well-documented history, it is almost natural to generalize that the Gentiles just don’t want to be friends with us – that they only want to hurt us, and they have nothing to offer; we ought to keep our distance. It’s tantalizing because this conclusion is not a big leap by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s a very safe bet that asks nothing of us. Trust nobody; everyone hates us!
But in this story, the Torah clearly says that for all the enemies out there – dangerous, murderous, and perhaps there really are lots of them – we might also find some allies along the way. The Ibn Ezra suggests that this lesson is an obvious inference from the contrast of encountering Yisro so immediately after battling Amalek. In Yisro, we learn that not only do allies exist whom we ought to welcome, but there also exists the possibility that they bring experience, knowledge, or wisdom that we ought to welcome too.
To be sure, it is a minefield to navigate how to live with this, and it’s probably not for the everyday lives of laypeople to grapple with; our culture is not their culture, our values are not their values. But for leadership – the educated and experienced people mature enough to appreciate nuance – we should recognize that the Torah plainly states that there exists something of value that comes from outside of the Torah and outside of our society, from people who don’t come from the same places we do.
This bold thought shouldn’t be as threatening or radical as it may appear at first glance. Using the digital technology and internet that went into writing this sentence so that you could then use the same technology to read it with, it’s something we should recognize is true. The Torah doesn’t quite tell humans about electricity or indoor plumbing, but there are many wise people and resources available to us with best practices and common sense, and we figure it out. As R’ Shlomo Farhi notes, there is no religious imperative to reject something purely because it doesn’t originate from within the Torah’s culture; unlike, for example, the Amish. It’s something our sages understood long ago – חכמה בגוים תאמין. If it works – great!
Moshe was intelligent; he likely understood the value of delegating but still believed he had to do it all on his own until Yisro cautioned him otherwise. By reporting this banal conversation in such detail, it seems that the Torah embraces an element of flexibility or fluidity in how we navigate the dynamic environments we encounter in the world. Yisro probably didn’t innovate management science and delegation – that’s nothing we can’t figure out on our own. Perhaps the story’s punchline is the very fact we can figure things out on our own; we have the discretion to figure out how to build and operate a society using the Torah’s guidelines.
So when we encounter uncharted territory and unprecedented obstacles in our community and society, as we inevitably will, we have to remember that not only is figuring out the solution not against the Torah, figuring out the solution is the embodiment of the Torah’s highest ideals.