Parashat Yitro tells of Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, who joined Benei Yisrael at Mount Sinai, and soon after his arrival, we are told, he advised Moshe to appoint a team of judges to assist him in leading the nation. Yitro observed Moshe fielding questions and settling disputes the entire day, “from morning until evening” (18:13), and he told Moshe, very plainly, “the thing you are doing is not good” (18:17). He warned Moshe that he would “assuredly whither” bearing this kind of burden and keeping this kind of schedule, and so he advised Moshe to appoint other judges with whom to share his responsibilities. Moshe agreed, and proceeded to selected qualified individuals to serve as judges (18:24-26).
Moshe’s embrace of Yitro’s constructive criticism, and accepting his advice, instead of stubbornly insisting that he did not need to change his leadership style, is certainly a reflection of Moshe’s humility, but may also be a reflection of Yitro’s character. It has been suggested that Yitro’s successful and effective criticism can be attributed to a quality indicated by the Midrash, cited by Rashi (18:11), who tells that Yitro “did not leave a single pagan deity that he did not worship.” Yitro explored every religious creed and mode of worship, before finally joining Benei Yisrael. This theological journey perhaps reflects a character of humility and honest self-assessment, the ability to objectively, truthfully and thoroughly scrutinize oneself, one’s beliefs and one’s conduct to determine whether they are what they should be. Yitro, as the Midrash describes, was a master of self-scrutiny, constantly assessing and reassessing his life to determine whether he was living the right way, and not hesitating to make changes – even drastic changes – upon recognizing that his approach was incorrect.
This quality may perhaps have contributed to Yitro’s ability to effectively offer sincere, constructive criticism. If a person has the humility to honestly criticize himself, then people are more likely to accept his sincere criticism of them. Such a person has a better chance of appearing genuine, rather than arrogant and condescending, thus making people more open and receptive to his advice. Unsolicited advice from somebody who does not appear to scrutinize himself, who seems overly self-assured, is less likely to be heard and accepted than that which comes from somebody who exudes genuine humility. And thus Yitro, who honestly and frequently scrutinized himself, was in a position to effectively offer advice to Moshe, who, displaying his own humility, gladly accepted and implemented Yitro’s recommendation.