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Parashat Yitro 5779

January 24, 2019

A D’var Torah for Parashat Yitro
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

At the beginning of this week’s parasha Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, hears of “all that God had done for Moses and the Israelites” (Exod. 18:1) and he brings Moses’ wife and children to join the Israelites in the desert. Moses goes out to greet Yitro and warmly welcomes him into his tent. Moses then recounts to his father-in-law all of the miraculous deeds that God performed to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and Yitro rejoices (Exod. 18:8-9). But wait. If Yitro already heard about “all that God had done for Moses and the Israelites,” then why does he only rejoice after hearing all of this again from Moses? By this point the exodus is old news! Perhaps the answer lies not in the message but in the messenger. Hearing secondhand, even about miracles such as the splitting of the sea, is simply not as powerful or reliable as hearing the story directly from the source.

We experience the difference between firsthand and secondhand knowledge in a variety of different ways. When a friend or relative has a new child we may hope to hear the happy news directly from the parent – and some would even be disgruntled if they learned of the simha by word of mouth rather than receiving a direct communication. Alternatively, sometimes when we hear that something unusual happened we may be skeptical until we hear it “straight from the horse’s mouth.” Beyond the perspective of the person who hears, we might also consider the experience of the one who speaks. It can be incredibly exciting to share good news oneself and at times it can be quite cathartic to share one’s difficult news. So hearing and conveying information firsthand seems to be the ideal. However, it is not always tenable.

In two different ways our parasha this week diverges from direct, firsthand communication and establishes a lasting precedent for secondhand knowledge.

Shortly after Yitro comes to visit Moses, he observes his son-in-law presiding over the Israelites from morning until evening to render legal decisions (Exod. 18:13). Yitro confronts Moses, questioning this exhausting behavior and informing Moses that this is “not right” (Exod. 18:17). The task is too great for one individual alone to handle. Yitro recommends establishing cohorts of reliable individuals who can judge the people and Moses sets up a system of courts (Exod. 18:19-26). No longer will minor issues, probably the majority of cases, be brought before the leader. Instead, Moses will direct his subordinate judges in proper judicial practices (Exod. 18:20) and the people will receive their judgment “secondhand,” from these appointed representatives.

As in the case of Moses, sometimes relating instructions firsthand is simply too draining for one individual alone to perform and thus “secondhand” instruction is necessary. But in the second example of the movement from first to secondhand knowledge in this week’s parasha, the weakness is not on the part of the speaker, but comes from the audience. Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai the people “witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking” but this proved too much for them and “they fell back and stood at a distance” (Exod. 20:15). According to one midrashic tradition, preserved in the Talmud, the Israelites actually died each time that God spoke and it was necessary for God to resurrect them (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88b). Unable to handle the direct words of God, the people plead with Moses: “‘You speak to us,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die’” (Exod. 20:16). Perhaps the Israelites originally desired to hear the voice of God. We can imagine them crowding their way towards the base of the mountain. But once God begins speaking it is simply too much. Direct, firsthand speech from the Divine is overwhelming and the people insist that they need to hear God’s message related secondhand, through their leader Moses.

When we consider the two major instances of shifting from firsthand to secondhand transmission of knowledge in our parasha we find that these cases exemplified two key realms of ancient Israelite life – civil law and divine instruction (if these two can even be disentangled in the Bible). For us, these two institutions perhaps reflect Jewish law more broadly. Many theories of Jewish law grapple with the question of the relationship between Divine will and Jewish practice – how do we know that contemporary practice accords with what God has in mind for us to do? Traditionalists may contend that the Torah and oral tradition were given to us directly and transmitted faithfully over the centuries. Yet, the Torah itself makes clear that already at Mount Sinai secondhand transmission was necessary. A non-traditional approach might argue that the switch to secondhand knowledge is an admission that we clearly do not have direct access to Divine will and therefore Jewish law is intended as a human project. Yet, in both instances we have been discussing, transmission is first attempted in an unmediated fashion – suggesting that firsthand knowledge is indeed the ideal.

So where does this leave us? The Torah seems to imply that firsthand knowledge is preferable, and this ostensibly accords with our experience. But, the Torah also reveals that in key situations firsthand knowledge may not be feasible, and secondhand transmission can authentically serve as a substitute. When it comes to Jewish law, I take these dual implications to indicate that while we may strive to come close to actualizing the Divine will in our daily life, ultimately we live in a non-ideal world that requires reliance on the best information we have available – but this “secondhand” knowledge is sufficient to construct an authentic Jewish practice.

Beyond Jewish law, the two examples of moving from firsthand to secondhand knowledge in this week’s parasha offer us another, perhaps more important lesson. The link between the first instance (of establishing courts) and the second case (of the revelation at Mount Sinai) is the figure of Moses. In the former situation, Moses is unable to bear the burden of adjudicating all of the people’s concerns and therefore is forced to delegate. In the latter instance, the people are unable to hear God’s direct, unmediated words and therefore Moses is forced to step in and resume the role of spokesperson for God. On the one hand, Moses is forced to rely on others to faithfully apply legal rulings. On the other hand, Moses is enshrined as the figure that all of the Israelites depend upon for receiving divine instruction. With the shifts from firsthand to secondhand knowledge in our parasha, Moses finds himself depending on others and Moses himself becomes the person upon whom others must depend.

Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD., is the Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator at AJR.

While firsthand knowledge and direct communication may be the ideal, we live in a non-ideal world in which this is often not possible. As we shift to the reality of secondhand knowledge and transmission we find ourselves in the position of Moses – needing to count on others and needing to be a person in whom others can have confidence. In this world we frequently must rely on others and they must often rely on us. May we all be blessed to be regularly reliable for others and to have friends, family, and others upon whom we can truly depend.