How Shall I Bear Alone?

  • Rav Amnon Bazak
 
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This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.
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A. PARASHAT YITRO VS. PARASHAT DEVARIM
 
In our parasha, Moshe reviews the historical events that have happened to Am Yisrael in the desert, starting with the establishment of the legal system. This review would appear to refer to the story that we read at the beginning of Parashat Yitro. Let us first compare the two descriptions, emphasizing the parallels between them:
 
Parashat Yitro (Shemot 18:13-26)
 
(13) "It happened on the next day that Moshe sat to judge the people, and the people stood before Moshe from the morning until the evening. (14) And Moshe's father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the nation, and he said: 'What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, with all the nation standing before you from morning until evening?' (15) Moshe said to his father-in-law: 'It is because the people come to me to ask of God. (16) If a matter arises for them, they come to me and I judge between man and his fellow, and I inform them of God's statutes and His teachings.' (17) And Moshe's father-in-law said to him: 'The thing that you do is not good. (18) You will surely become worn out – both you and this nation that is with you, for the matter is too heavy for you; YOU CANNOT do it ALONE. (19) Now, hear my voice and I shall advise you, that God may be with you: you shall be for the nation before God, and you shall bring the matters to God. (20) And you shall teach them the statutes and the teachings, and you shall make known to them the way in which they shall go, and what acts they shall do. (21) And you shall see, from all the nation, men of valor, who fear God – men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall place over them CAPTAINS OF THOUSANDS AND CAPTAINS OF HUNDREDS AND CAPTAINS OF FIFTIES AND CAPTAINS OF TEN. (22) And they shall judge the nation at all times, and any matter that is great they shall bring to you, while any matter that is small they shall judge themselves, and they shall lighten your load and they shall BEAR IT with you. (23) If you do this thing, and God commands you so, then you shall be able to endure, and also all of this people shall be able to go to their place in peace.' (24) And Moshe listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. (25) And Moshe selected men of valor from among all of Israel, and he made them heads over the people: captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds, and captains of fifties, and captains of tens. (26) And they judged the people at all times: THE DIFFICULT MATTERS THEY BROUGHT TO MOSHE, while all the small matters they judged themselves."
 
Parashat Devarim:
 
(9) "I said to you at that time, saying: 'I CANNOT BEAR ALONE THE BURDEN of you. (10) God your Lord has made you numerous, and behold, you are today like the stars of the heavens for multitude. (11) May God, the Lord of your forefathers, add upon you thousands more like you, and bless you as He has spoken to you! (12) How can I BEAR alone your troubles and your burdens and your quarrels? (13) Take for yourselves wise and understanding men, known to your tribes, and I shall appoint them over you.' (14) And you answered me and said, 'The thing of which you have spoken to do is good.' (15) So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and known men, and I made them heads over you – CAPTAINS OF THOUSANDS, AND CAPTAINS OF HUNDREDS, AND CAPTAINS OF FIFTIES, AND CAPTAINS OF TENS, and officers for your tribes. (16) And I commanded your judges at that time, saying: 'Hear the cases between your brethren, and judge righteously between man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. (17) You shall not be partial in judgment; you shall hear impartially the small and the great. You shall not be afraid before anyone, for judgment belongs to God. AND A MATTER THAT IS TOO DIFFICULT FOR YOU, YOU SHALL BRING TO ME, AND I SHALL HEAR IT.' (18) And I commanded you at that time concerning all the things that you should do."
 
What is common to both descriptions is the raising of the need to appoint more judges for Bnei Yisrael, out of a recognition that one person cannot judge an entire nation on his own. As a result, there are appointments of "captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds, and captains of fifties, and captains of tens," who are meant to help Moshe to "bear" the burden of the nation. However, it is emphasized, any "difficult matter" is to be brought by the judges before Moshe.
 
As is the case in many other sections of Sefer Devarim, we find – along with the similarities – significant differences between the two versions:
 
  1. The most striking difference is, obviously, Yitro's role in the story. Sefer Shemot presents the whole idea as being suggested by Yitro: it is he who takes note of Moshe's impossible situation, and who proposes the solution. Our parasha, in contrast, makes no mention of Yitro at all. The Ramban addresses this problem and suggests several possible explanations:
 
"It seems to me that [Moshe] did not wish to make mention of [Yitro] before the entire nation of Israel – [either] out of modesty, or because this generation would not view in a positive light the fact that he had taken an Cushite wife, or perhaps the reason is because he was anointed by the Shekhina, and it was by God's word that this matter was decided."
 
  1. Selection of the judges: In Sefer Shemot, Yitro tells Moshe to select judges – "You shall see…," and indeed Moshe does so: "Moshe selected men of valor from all of Israel and appointed them heads over the nation." In our parasha, Moshe suggests to the nation that they themselves appoint their own judges: "Take for yourselves wise and understanding men who are known to your tribes, and I shall appoint them over you." It seems that our parasha then also describes the execution of this idea. The nation responds, "The thing that you have spoken to do is good" – referring, apparently, to the selection of judges, and Moshe's next words – "AND I TOOK the heads of your tribes, wise and known men, and made them heads over you," refer to the same men that the nation chose (with the expression "I took" contrasting with the expression used in parashat Yitro – "He selected").
 
  1. Yitro proposes that Moshe choose people of high moral stature: "men of valor who fear God, men of truth who hate monetary gain," while in Sefer Devarim Moshe emphasizes the intellectual aspect: "wise and understanding men, known to your tribes."
 
  1. Our parasha describes Moshe as emphasizing to the judges the importance of righteous judgment: "You shall hear cases among your brethren, and you shall judge righteously between man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. You shall not be partial in judgment, you shall hear impartially the small and the great. You shall not be afraid before anyone, for judgment belongs to God." These warnings are not mentioned in parashat Yitro.
 
  1. Yitro mentions only the judicial system, while Moshe adds, "and officers for your tribes."
 
What is the significance of these differences?
 
B. "HEADS" VS. "JUDGES"
 
It would seem that we can explain the significance of all these differences by means of a single solution, based on the most important difference between the two accounts, which we have not yet mentioned. Yitro's suggestion relates in its entirety to the judicial arena. He sees the Israelite masses lining up in front of Moshe "to ask of God," and he proposes that Moshe appoint a system of judges to judge locally, leaving Moshe to deal with teaching Torah and God's statutes, as well as functioning as a "high court of justice" in the event of doubt. The people who are selected must be of solid moral character, in order that they be able to function properly as judges. For this reason, Yitro proposes that the task of selecting them be undertaken by Moshe himself. [1]
 
In Devarim, Moshe describes a different reality, where the problem concerns not only the judicial system, but also the broader issue of a single individual leading an entire nation: "I cannot bear you alone. God your Lord has multiplied you and behold, you are today like the stars of the heavens for multitude… How can I bear alone your troubles and your burdens and your quarrels?" These expressions indicate the entire scope of national leadership. As Rashi writes:
 
"'Your troubles' – this teaches that Bnei Yisrael were troublesome. If one would see his adversary being acquitted in judgment, and he would say: 'I have more witnesses to bring, I have more proofs, I shall add more judges.'
'And your burden' – this teaches that they were heretics. If Moshe would come out early, they would say: 'Why is the son of Amram leaving now? Perhaps he is not clear-headed in his house.' If he came out late, they would say: 'Why is the son of Amram not coming out? What do you think – he is sitting and conspiring against you.'
'And your quarrels' – this teaches that they were quarrelsome."
 
Indeed, the words "I cannot bear you alone" are almost an exact echo of what Moshe said on another occasion – the episode of the complainers: "I cannot bear alone this entire nation, for it is too difficult for me" (Bamidbar 11:14). There the situation had nothing to do with justice; rather, the issue was one of general leadership. Therefore, the emphasis in our parasha is not necessarily on the appointment of judges, but rather on the appointment of leaders: "I shall place them at your head;" "I shall make them heads over you." The subject of the judiciary is mentioned in the parasha only in passing (verse 16). [2] It seems, then, that although Yitro initiated the idea of establishing a judicial system, its implementation in reality was very different. This was because Moshe understood that the problem was, in fact, much more all-encompassing than Yitro had imagined. For this reason, Yitro's name is not mentioned in our parasha.
 
This helps to explain all the differences that we noted previously. Yitro, whose attention was focused on the judicial system, emphasized the need to select people who had special traits qualifying them for judgment: "men of valor who fear God, men of truth who hate monetary gain." Moshe, on the other hand, is looking for people who are worthy leaders, and hence he speaks of the need for men who are "wise and understanding, and known to your tribes." Likewise, while Yitro describes a judicial system that only Moshe will select, Moshe himself speaks of a ruling leadership and suggests – perhaps for the first time in history – a democratically elected body.
 
Now we can understand why Moshe must command the judges, "You shall judge righteously between a person and his brother" – a warning that appears nowhere in parashat Yitro. Yitro was describing people of high moral caliber, worthy of being judges; such people have no need to be commanded to judge righteously. But Moshe selects people whose forte is political leadership, and therefore it is important that they be warned that their judicial responsibilities must be carried out fairly and righteously.
 
Likewise, we understand now the final difference. While Yitro discusses only the judicial system, Moshe describes institutions of general leadership, and therefore only Moshe mentions the appointment of "officers for your tribes."
 
C. "HEADS" VS. "ELDERS"
 
The explanation of the differences between our parasha and parashat Yitro, as we have undertaken it, gives rise to a question from another direction. As we have said, in our parasha Moshe is complaining about his inability to lead the entire nation alone – reminding us of what he said in the story of the complainers. However, in the latter case, Moshe found a different solution:
 
"God said to Moshe, Gather for Me seventy men from among the elders of Israel, whom you know to be elders of the people and their officers. Take them to the Ohel Mo'ed and let them stand there with you. I shall descend and speak to you there, and I shall separate some of the spirit that is upon you and I shall place it upon them, and they shall bear with you the burden of the nation, and you shall not bear them alone." (Bamidbar 11:16-17)
 
How do these two solutions relate to one another?
 
It would seem that here, too, the two parashot present two different solutions. Sefer Bamidbar describes Moshe as appealing to God, despairing at the existing situation, and he expresses himself in very sharp terms:
 
"Moshe said to God: Why have You done evil to Your servant; why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have placed the burden of this entire nation upon me? Did I conceive this entire nation, did I give birth to it, that You should say to me, 'Bear them in your bosom, as a nurse carries the infant,' to the land that You have promised to their forefathers? From whence have I enough meat to give to this entire nation, that is crying to me saying, 'Give us meat, that we may eat'? I cannot bear alone this entire nation, for it is too difficult for me. And if You do this to me – kill me, I pray You, if I have found favor in Your sight, and let me not see my own wretchedness." (Bamidbar 11:11-15)
 
This appeal to God leads to a solution in the form of prophetic leadership: the seventy elders will serve as additional spiritual leadership for the nation.
 
In our parasha, it is before the nation that Moshe expresses his difficulties:
 
"I cannot bear you alone. God your Lord has multiplied you and behold, today you are like the stars of the heavens for multitude. May God, the Lord of your forefathers, add upon you thousands more like you, and bless you as He has spoken to you! How can I bear alone your troubles and your burdens and your quarrels?"
 
Hence, the solution, too, comes with the help of the nation – as described above. The nation chooses men who are wise and understanding, rather than prophets, as assistants to Moshe in leadership.
 
This difference is no coincidence. Sefer Devarim, as we shall hopefully see in the coming weeks, emphasizes the human aspect of each topic it addresses, both legal and historical.[3] It is no surprise, then, that each Sefer describes a separate system established to assist in the leadership of the nation. Sefer Bamidbar describes the system of the seventy elders, who – together with Moshe – represent the spiritual leadership of the nation, by virtue of the prophecy awarded to those elders. Sefer Devarim, on the other hand, describes the system of captains – the heads of the nation, chosen by the nation to help with routine material leadership.
 
NOTES:
 
[1] However, Ibn Ezra (Shemot 18:21) asks:
 
"If the meaning of 'These are the captains' is to be understood literally, they number more than 79,000.  It is far-fetched for there to have been so many judges: the text says, 'When the land is sinful, its captains are many' (Mishlei 28:2)… and where are we to find people with all the good traits that are mentioned, even though they are among those who left Egypt, having learned [the Egyptians'] ways, and it is written, 'the actions of the land of Egypt… you shall not do' (Vayikra 18:3). And behold, the generation of the desert, who were taught by Moshe for forty years, who had no need to engage in any occupation because their food was given to them, and their water was assured, and the manna fell, were the opposite of those who had lusted after food, for they were not accustomed to eating such food in Egypt. Nevertheless, Moshe told them, in the fortieth year, 'God has not given you a knowing heart' (Devarim 29:3). So we must ask, how could there be such a great number of people who were all wise and understanding?"
 
Ibn Ezra solves the difficulty by diminishing the number of judges, through an alternative understanding of the terms:
 
"It seems to me that 'captains of thousands' means that under their supervision were a thousand people – servants or assistants or hirelings; perhaps these were the officers of the tribes, twelve in number; 'captains of hundreds' would be many, and 'captains of fifties' as in 'and fifty men ran before him' (Shemuel II 15:1)."
 
But in his short commentary, Ibn Ezra explains otherwise:
 
"Some say that altogether they numbered 1,160, while others maintain that they were 678, while still others arrive at 11,110. I shall not elaborate on these calculations, for the syntax of the text contradicts them. The truth is, as the early commentators had it – that all the captains together numbered 78,600 [as cited by Rashi in parashat Yitro, based on Sanhedrin 18a]."
 
[2] It is even possible that the subject of justice is not part of the main story at all. After the description of the selection of the "heads," we are told, "I commanded your judges AT THAT TIME, saying" – i.e., not necessarily as part of the event that was described in the previous verses.
 
[3] To illustrate briefly, let us review a small example in each area.
MITZVOT: Compare the reason for the mitzva of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments, as it appears in Shemot 20:10 ("For in six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the Shabbat day and made it holy"), to Devarim 5:13-14 ("In order that your man-servant and maidservant may rest like you, an that you may remember that you sere a slave in the land of Egypt, and God your Lord took you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; therefore God your Lord commands you to observe the Shabbat day").
HISTORICAL DESCRIPTIONS: Compare the description of the war against Amalek in Sefer Shemot, presented as a religious war (Shemot 17:8-16), and its description in Sefer Devarim, where the emphasis is on the corrupt moral character of the Amalekite nation (Devarim 25:18 – "he attacked your rear, all those trailing behind you.")
 
 
(Translated by Kaeren Fish)