We read in Parashat Yitro of how Moshe accepted the suggestion made by his father-in-law, Yitro, to appoint a network of judges to help him arbitrate and resolve the people’s conflicts. Yitro observed Moshe spending his entire day judging the people, and urged Moshe to find qualified individuals with whom he could share this burden of responsibility, rather than trying to shoulder it alone. Moshe heeded his father-in-law’s advice, and set up a network of judges.
Many writers raised the question as to the significance of the fact that this seemingly obvious measure was introduced specifically by Yitro. Moshe, the greatest prophet who ever lived, who beheld a clearer vision of God than that beheld by any human being who ever lived, seems not to have considered this option, of appointing a team of judges to work alongside him. This idea was proposed by Yitro, an outsider and former idolater, who had only recently decided to join Benei Yisrael. What might be the message being conveyed by this seemingly peculiar incident?
The Or Ha-chayim, in a fascinating passage (to 18:21), writes that the Torah wanted Benei Yisrael to recognize that there is great wisdom to be found among the other nations. We were chosen to receive the Almighty’s Torah and live under His special providence, the Or Ha-chayim explains, not because we are intrinsically wiser or greater, but out of His great kindness and because of His promise to the patriarchs. And therefore right at the time when Benei Yisrael received the Torah at Sinai, forging an eternal covenant with the Almighty, a foreigner comes along and introduces a system that Moshe embraces and chooses to implement – to remind us that our stature as God’s special nation does not reflect any inherent superiority within our makeup and composition.
Rav Chaim Elazary, in his Darkhei Chayim, cites the Or Ha-chayim’s comments, and then (after questioning the Or Ha-chayim’s theory) proposes a different approach. He writes that this story of Moshe and Yitro should serve as a humbling reminder that nobody ever achieves perfection or thoroughly comprehensive knowledge. Just as Moshe Rabbenu had what to learn and gain from Yitro, a newcomer to the Jewish Nation, so do we, and all people, including the brightest and most accomplished among us, have what to learn and gain from others. As the Mishna (4:1) famously teaches, “Who is wise? He who learns from all people.” The process of growth and learning never ends, as long as a person is alive. We all have more to learn and plenty of room for improvement, and the knowledge, insight and wisdom we seek can be found in many different places, and among many different people. If Moshe Rabbenu gained knowledge from Yitro, then we, too, can certainly learn and gain from the people around us, regardless of their background and stature.