Hierarchy and Strategy for Spiritual Leadership Parshat Yitro – Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald
Our parsha is named after Yitro who "added (yiter) one parsha to the Torah" (Mechilta and Shemot Rabbah), for which he is given credit.
Yitro encounters the judicial and leadership method of Moshe Rabbenu: "And the nation stood before Moshe, from the morning to the evening." (Shemot 18) Yitro criticizes Moshe's single-handed method: "What you're doing isn't good…it's too much for you, you won't be able to do it alone."
Moshe explained to Yitro that he wasn't dealing with regular human legal matters, but with "seeking G-d" and as a prophet of G-d he had a unique advantage. Yitro, however, was certain that Moshe couldn't go on this way for long: "You will definitely get worn down, as well this nation which is with you." And he advised him to adopt a hierarchical model of joint leadership: "Now listen to me and I'll give you advice…you should seek out from the entire nation valiant, G-d fearing men…and appoint them ministers over thousands, ministers over hundreds, ministers over fifties and ministers over tens."
The division of authority between the ranks of the leadership will be by sector as well as qualitative, determined by the severity of the case being judged: "And they will judge the nation at all times, and they will bring all the big cases before you, and all the small ones they will judge themselves." Thus was the burden on Moshe will be relieved, "And they will lighten (the burden) from you and will bear it with you." And Moshe's time will be dedicated to dealing with the highest "quality", meaning the most difficult cases.
Certain commentators explain that the appointment of the "judges" wasn't only for legal purposes, but also comprised a spiritual leadership, for all the nation's needs, in times of peace and war. (Abarbanel)
Yitro recommended preferring a strategy of joint leadership over one which relies on a single person. Theoretically, there are advantages to individual, concentrated leadership where the same level makes the decisions and carries them out (especially at this stage of Am Israel's new emergence as a nation). Often the policies and philosophy of a leadership don't manage to "trickle down" to the levels responsible for carrying them out. On the other hand, individual leadership isn't a practical proposition in the real world. A leader's span of rule, with all the various fields that need to be dealt with, is limited by his time. Even the most talented leader who proposes to deal with all the issues, doesn't have enough time to concentrate on all of them, and inevitably will not succeed with any of them, and the nation will suffer as a result. "Everything" will turn into "nothing". The unbearable burden on his shoulders will wear him down to exhaustion. So the only choice is a joint, hierarchical of administration built upon division of responsibilities. "Since the burden of the public is great and no individual person can carry it by himself." (Devarim Rabbah) A leader must allocate authority and define tasks at every level, as well as the correlation between the various levels. This guarantees that the leadership will successfully deal with all the nation's needs.
The parsha evokes a number of questions: The story of the appointment of judges is mentioned in the book of Devarim (1:9), "And I said to you at that time, I cannot carry you (the nation's burden) by myself." Why didn't Moshe mention that this was at Yitro's suggestion?
And is this idea of delegation of authority some great innovation? Every entry-level manager knows this! And Moshe Rabbenu grew up in Pharaoh's palace and learned all the techniques of government, so he obviously knew and understood that the idea that one man will stand and judge from the morning to the evening is impractical, because that way the judge and the judged will be worn down. So how is it that Moshe Rabbenu of blessed memory and all the wise men of Israel didn't know that appointing judges will lighten his burden? And didn't they know that the judges should be valiant and G-d fearing men who hate corruption? Yitro had to teach this to the master of prophets and the greatest of wise men, Moshe Rabbenu of blessed memory? And the "wise men" of Christianity spoke against the master of the prophets, that he lacked ability in national leadership. And among them were those who attributed this to his being alone in prophecy, and therefore lacking "intelligence in character". And this is a lie, because his perfection of character proves his intelligence in this." (Abarbanel and Torah Shlema)
Several answers have been given to these questions.
We can safely say that Moshe Rabbenu felt the burden of individual leadership, knew the advantages of appointing judges and thought of doing this himself. However, since the issue at hand was spiritual, "seeking G-d", and he was best suited for this, he felt that a different strategy of leadership was necessary and he would have to carry it out with self-sacrifice: "And so see that Moshe sacrificed himself on three things which were called by his name: judgment, Torah and the tabernacle. Laws we learn from the verse 'And Moshe sat in judgment of the nation…' and they were called by his name, as is written (Devarim 33) 'He did G-d's justice and His judgment with Israel'. (Bamidbar Rabbah 12) And therefore he would merit superhuman ability to perform the task. (Ktav Sofer)
Yitro was convinced that in spite of this, leadership must be conducted in a natural way and that G-d will command Moshe to do this. "And I said to you at that time". Because of Yitro who said this to me, and G-d agreed with him, as is written (Shemot 18:23) "And G-d will command you, and you will be able to stand up (to the task)." (Rabbenu Bechaii on Devarim 1:9)
This is Yitro's great innovation and his credit for eternity.