Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, shows up on the scene abruptly, and almost immediately begins to remonstrate Moses for his habit of taking the full responsibility to judge the people in every case. He observes,
“The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear out….” (Ex.18:17-18)
The fact that this scene immediately precedes the giving of the Ten Commandments in the Bible narrative is very telling. For one thing, as I pointed out in a previous essay, Moses as a Son of Man, we see the humanity of Moses on full display immediately before being glorified as the bearer of the Tablets and the one who “speaks face to face with God”. This contrast keeps him connected to the people in a very tangible way. But also, we see something even more important: The connection between the Agent of God and the Tzimtzum, or self-limitation of God in His revealing of Himself to mankind.
R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner, a great rabbi in Poland during the 19th Century, comments on the Hebrew of “I AM the LORD your God…” (Ex.20:2)
“I ( anokhi) am Adonai your God. And it does not say “Ani.” For if it had been
written “Ani,” it would have implied that God completely revealed all of His light
then [that is, at the revelation at Sinai], and they would be unable to go deeper
into His words, for He would have already revealed everything. But the letter khaf
indicates that [the Light] is not complete, but rather it is a likeness and
representation of the light that the Holy Blessed One will reveal in the future.”
Dena Weiss, of Mechon Hadar, comments on this:
According to the Mei HaShiloah, if God had revealed His actual self, Ani, as opposed to His likeness, Anokhi, God would have also revealed His whole self. The danger of such a total disclosure would be that the revelation at Sinai would not only be the beginning of our relationship with God, of our learning about God through His Torah, but it would also mark the end of that encounter. We would have learned everything and known everything instantly, rendering redundant or even pointless the spiritual work of trying to understand more of God and God’s Torah. There would be no mystery left to add depth to the relationship, no knowledge to uncover in the future. (Dena Weiss, “I AM “Like” the LORD your God”, http://www.hadar.org, emphasis mine)
While the Ten Commandments are immutable in their force and integrity, there is still more behind the surface which awaits discovery. Not only in the laws themselves, but in the God who gave them. Like an elusive lover of sorts, He escapes direct gaze and remains a mystery.
Instead, He establishes His Agent, Moses, and through Jethro, exhorts His Agent to follow suit. The pattern of as above, so below is very apparent. (Ex.25:9)
Therefore, chapter 18, in which Moses is chastised by his father-in-law Jethro, comes before chapter 19, in which God says to Moses,
“Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you and may also believe in you forever.” (Ex.19:9)
This is eerily reminiscent of the Mount of Transfiguration, is it not?
God is exalting His Agent, but has already, through Jethro in the previous chapter, established boundaries by which his power may be delegated and ultimately democratized. Moses will not be among them forever, and the people must learn how to live in his absence. So, God establishes the limits of power that may be centered on a single man. Even though all of His given authority still rests on that man, he is divesting His Agent of a portion of this singular power, so that the nation may be stronger.
“Israel is the only nation whose sole ultimate king and legislator is God Himself (Ps.147:19-20)…What the covenant of Sinai established for the first time was the moral limits of power. All human authority is delegated authority, subject to the overarching moral imperatives of the Torah itself. This side of heaven, there is no absolute power. (This is why we see the) delegation, distribution, and democratization of leadership. Only God can rule alone.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Lessons In Leadership”, pg.86, Koren Publishers, 2015)
So, before the giving of the Commandments at Sinai, there is the establishment of the delegation and dissemination of the power to judge. This is not to prevent Moses from becoming conceited (as some withing the nation would later claim) but because he would become like God. Jethro saw this as “wearing out”. We know that Moses did not wear out:
“Although Moses was one hundred years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated.” (Deut.34:7)
What would wear out would be the people’s tolerance. In the rebellion of Korah, this is exactly what transpired, as certain members of the nations resented the fact that Moses seemed to be “cornering the market” on authority and pedigree.
What is at issue here is that God is the King of the people, not Moses. And in future generations, all the prophets, priests and kings would likewise always be judged by whether they did the will of the true King, HaShem.
But let’s take a look at the practical applications of this idea.
By not fully revealing Himself at Sinai, but instead leaving many things as a mystery to be discovered, God empowered the growth of the people. They were now on a journey with God, and a journey out of slavery and into servant-hood. They were being invited into a divine partnership under a code of ethics and conduct that would define what godliness would mean for all future generations, but they would actually define it themselves as they developed and established a tradition of what it all meant in real-life terms, building a narrative that is passed down through the elders in the gates, just as God commanded them to do.
In the raising up of judges under Moses, there was a chain of authority established, which provided a needed buffer between the people and Moses. Not to shield Moses from them, but to protect the people from judgment according to “the strictness of the letter”. But most importantly, a community ethic of learning and devotion is established; one that precludes circumvention, such as what we see in the Essene community or in many other break-away sects of faith, both in Judaism and Christianity, in which certain people claim to hear “directly from God” and seemingly no longer need to pay attention to any form of authority that they deem “man-made”.
Once this Oral Tradition of judging and interpretation is established by Moses, no longer, in practical effect, does a single person rule entirely over the people. It is a community affair, and the responsibility of all. The Talmud speaks of this:
“But isn’t it written: “And they shall stumble one upon another” (Lev.26:37)? This verse is homiletically interpreted to mean that they shall stumble spiritually, one due to the iniquity of another, which teaches that the entire Jewish people are considered guarantors for one another.” (Talmud, Shavuot 39a, Koren Steinstaltz edition)
We may not always agree with the decisions of our leadership, but they are accountable before God for those decisions, and we are accountable for our reactions to them, and our conduct. Under the concept of Agency, when God establishes an authority, they are an extension of Himself, and the people are in turn and extension of the leadership.
“Let us say that the legal status of a person’s agent is like that of himself…” (Talmud, Kiddushin 42b, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
However, this sword cuts both ways….
“…There is no agency for transgression…Faced with the choice of obeying God or the (leader), whom should you obey?” (IBID)
What does this mean? It means that bad leadership does not need to be followed when it violates the will of the LORD. An example of how this plays out is in the story of Balaam, The Gentile prophet who concerned himself with the outward obedience to the literal words of God, while paying no heed to God’s known intent.
Balaam was a literalist, but he should have been more like Abraham, who pleaded with God to change His mind and be merciful to Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of even a few righteous people. This illuminates a principle of “argument for the sake of heaven”.
Any dispute for the sake of heaven will have enduring value…(Pirkei Avot 5:21)
Rabbi Sacks comments on this as well,
“The very act of learning in rabbinic Judaism is conceived as active debate, a kind of gladiatorial contest of the mind: “Even a teacher and disciple, even a father and son, when they sit to study Torah together, become enemies to one another. But they do not move from there until they have become beloved to one another” (Kiddushin 30b). Hence the Talmudic saying, “I learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most of all from my students” (Tannit 7a). Therefore, despite the reverence we owe our teachers, we owe them also our best efforts at questioning and challenging their ideas.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Lessons in Leadership”, pg.159)
When Moses delegated and divested his singular authority to judge the people, he opened the doors of exploration and growth to them. This act mirrored the self-restraint of God Himself. As we saw above, if God had revealed ALL of Himself at Sinai, there would be nothing left to learn, nothing left to discover.
The democratization of devotion creates the environment for the potential illuming of the Supernal Torah; what the kabbalists call the “Torah between the letters”. This is the Torah that the Messiah reveals, and which all people who pursue God are ever after in their spiritual journey. It hides itself behind the “written Torah” like a bride hides her face behind a veil.
Moses, while he had the authority and the ability to judge the people himself, needed to step aside, in a manner of speaking, and allow others to become partners in the holy sanctified work of tikkun; healing.
Moses lost none of his authority, but chose not to enforce it except when it was necessary. We see a similar tension with Christ:
“For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son.” (Jn.5:22)
Which stands in direct contrast with:
“You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one.” (Jn.8:15)
Which is true? Both. Just like Moses, who had the right to judge, he stepped back and let others do so, in order that the nation would be stronger. At least, he would have liked to be able to, but found that he couldn’t.
This is illustrated perfectly in the story of the woman caught in adultery. Yeshua is unwilling to render judgment upon her. Besides the fact that this was certainly not a legal proceeding according to Jewish law, the account highlights something usually completely missed by Christian interpreters. Christian readers are often taught to believe that Christ’s handling of this issue means the law has been abolished in Christ, and grace reigns. However, from a Jewish perspective, it relates far more to the events in our current Torah portion than to any antinomian doctrine.
In truth, what Yeshua is doing is exactly what Moses did: Step back and delegate. As if he is saying; ‘You consider yourselves leaders and yet you bring this to me? You should be able to judge this yourselves, but first you must be worthy of doing so. Are you?’ Of course, none of them were. Yeshua doesn’t release the woman because she is innocent, but because those whose responsibility it was to judge the matter are unqualified. And that is the real tragedy of the scene to Jewish eyes; not the fact that the adulterous woman was accused and set free, but the fact that none present among the leadership were worthy of judging rightly.
The scene is meant to portray the inadequacy of the leadership to judge rightly, which was their duty under the Law, not to suggest the abrogation of the Law in favor of “grace”.
But this brings us full-circle to Jethro, a man from outside the camp of Israel, yet close to Moses the Redeemer, not only challenging the Redeemer of Israel, but being honored and listened to. This is astoundingly important for those of us in the community of faith to understand.
Do we believe that we have the right to contend with our Master as Jethro did with Moses? Do we believe, likewise, that we have the spiritual authority to judge when this need is pressed upon us? Or do we bring things meant for us to handle to Yeshua, and expect him to deal with it himself?
As the 19th Century rabbi observed, if God had revealed all of Himself at Sinai, there is no longer any room for growth. This would not have been a good thing. For if all revelation is complete, then there is nothing left for God’s people to do and to learn, or to grow in their calling to bring “the light to the world”.
If man has no right to judge or to rule God’s people, than it justifies the attitude of individuals who feel that they don’t have to be accountable to any leadership whatsoever, but can claim to be “directly under the Lord”.
But, it turns out that Yeshua did not at all endorse this attitude. In fact, he did exactly what Moses did. He democratized his authority. Meaning, he shared it.
“Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.” (Matt.18:18)
This principle, often falsely understood as related to spiritual warfare within Evangelicalism, is clearly discussing the concept of Agency, and the authority of people where are under the Lord’s authority to hold and release, or bind and loose, as the Talmud refers to the concept.
An obvious example of this at work in the early assembly is the Council at Jerusalem in Acts 15. The rulings of the council are binding. This is because the authority has been delegated to them by he who had the right to do so. This did not reduce the power of the Master, but increased the power and responsibility of those whom it affected.
The obvious objection to this is: What if the people won’t receive the authority of His Agents?
“….Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing was displeasing in the sight of Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the LORD. The LORD said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.” (1 Sam.8:5-7)