We read in Parashat Yitro of Moshe’s appointment of judges to assist him in addressing the many different questions and conflicts that arose among the people. Moshe made this decision at the recommendation of his father-in-law, Yitro, who saw Moshe devoting his entire day to addressing the people’s questions. Yitro advised Moshe to find “men of distinction, who are God-fearing, men of truth, and who despise ill-begotten money” to serve as judges and thus alleviate his burden (18:21). Several verses later, we read that “Moshe chose men of distinction [anshei chayil] from among all of Israel and appointed them leaders over the nation” (18:25). As several commentators noted, Yitro listed several qualifications that the leaders should possess, but Moshe chose people who were only “anshei chayil” and did not necessarily have the other credentials.
Among the various explanations offered for this discrepancy is the approach suggested by Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni, who write that the quality of “anshei chayil” is the only one among those listed by Yitro which could be definitively recognized. These commentators understand the term “anshei chayil” as referring to people with the strength and fortitude to handle the burden of leadership. This quality can be definitively discerned, whereas the others – a person’s fear of God, honesty, and aversion to illegal profiteering – are characteristics that only God can recognize with certainty. No human – not even Moshe, the greatest prophet who ever lived – is capable of conclusively and accurately assessing another person’s level of morality and fear of God. Therefore, Moshe chose people who were “anshei chayil,” but did not attempt to find people with the other characteristics mention by Yitro, given the inability to know with certainty that a person possesses these characteristics.
This explanation should remind us of the need to reserve judgment and avoid making assumptions about other people’s spiritual standing. As perceptive as we think we are, our ability to truly understand people and judge their character will always be limited. We should admire the fine qualities we see manifest in other people, and be prudently cautious of people whom we have reason to suspect, but we must avoid making definitive judgments about them. All people have a vast, complex inner world that cannot be seen – and certainly not understood – by others. By recognizing how little we are able to see and understand about the people around us, we will be less judgmental, less critical, and more capable of extending the love, kindness and respect that we ought to be according to all people.