Long Lines and Ma'amad Har Sinai
Parshat Yitro contains the most important event in the history of the world, Ma’amad Har Sinai, receiving the Torah at Sinai. God reveals himself to the entire Jewish people and gives us His law. While the actual revelation at Sinai is the focal point of the parsha, it is only half of the sixth aliya. The rest of the parsha, both before and after, provides background and context to the Sinai experience. The parsha opens with Yitro’s sage advice to his son-in-law, Moses. Presumably the placement of the story of Yitro in close juxtaposition to the events of Sinai provides a message relevant to Ma’amad Har Sinai.
After observing Moses adjudicate cases brought to him by the people from morning until night, the Torah tells us:
And Moses’ father in law saw all that he was doing for the people and he said, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand in front of you from morning until evening? ...You will wear yourself out, and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you, you cannot do it alone. (Shemot 18:14,18)”
What specifically was Yitro worried about? There is no doubt that he was worried that Moses was being overburdened by the people. Yitro did not want to see his son-in-law wear himself out, especially now that he had been reunited with his wife and children. But there was more to it than Moses’ workload alone. Yitro was also worried that the people would be worn out. What did he mean by that? The Daat Zekeinim and Seforno write that Yitro is referring to the beit din, court, of Moses. Since a rabbinical court requires at least three judges, Yitro was worried that not only was Moses overburdened, but the other two judges were as well.
The challenge with this approach is that it seems odd that “Ha’am hazeh, the people” refers to just two people.
Rashi takes a more expansive approach. Moses was not just joined by two other judges but by the entire Sanhedrin of 70 judges. Still, Yitro was worried that Moses and the 70 judges were nonetheless overwhelmed by the case load. It does seem more palatable to read “Ha’am hazeh, the people” as referring to 70 people, not just three. Though the Bechor Shor has an approach which stays the most true to the text.
The Bechor Shor says that “Ha’am hazeh, the people” is referring to all the people of Israel. Yitro was worried that not only would Moses be worn out by being the sole judge, but the people would also be worn out by standing in line all day to get their cases heard. Can you imagine how long the docket must have been to have a case tried in front of one judge for the entire nation?!
This comment of the Bechor Shor is profound. The lesson of Yitro is not only that Moses needed to create an effective judicial structure to prevent his own burnout, but also that it was necessary for the people as well. People don’t want to stand in long lines. People don’t want to feel like they do not have access to the judges. People don’t want to feel like they are stuck in a system. Yitro understood this, and passed on the message to Moses. And Moses implemented the change. This is the story that precedes the giving of the law at Sinai.
To uphold the Torah and its laws, people need to have confidence in the rabbinic judicial system, and that system must be cognizant of the concerns and needs of the people. Even the length of the line!