The relationship between Moshe and Yitro, his father-in-law as well as colleague in clergy, is the first successful interfaith encounter. Avraham’s encounters with Pharoah and Avimelech are disastrous, each almost resulting in Sara being raped. Yitzchak’s experience with Avimelech mirrors his father’s and Yaakov’s with his uncle, Lavan, are even worse. It isn’t until Moshe meets Yitro that this pattern changes.
Part of the explanation, of course, is that Yitro was, in his own tradition, a high priest. He is described as having a strong awareness of and relationship with The Creator. But there was also something quite unique about Moshe that allowed him to participate in this interfaith encounter and actually benefit from it.
The parsha describes Moshe sitting to judge over every dispute and enquiry that arises. Yitro observes this and realizes that Moshe is spreading himself too thinly and is overworking to such a degree that he can’t long survive. He suggests a system where Moshe delegates much of his authority, all the while retaining ultimate responsibility. He teaches Moshe how to be an effective administrator, how to successfully continue his mission of bringing Torah, God’s essence, into the world through his leadership of the Jewish People. And this advice, from a non-Jewish priest, is validated by the Torah and adopted by Moshe.
While this says a lot about Yitro, a supportive friend and ally, it says even more about Moshe in his ability to accept this outside and unsolicited advice. Only a very self-confident person is able to accept constructive criticism and only someone who truly knows himself feels safe and secure in delegating authority. What is it about Moshe that enables him to do this?
One of the Divine Attributes, ספירות, Sephirot, most associated with Moshe is דעת, Da’at, wisdom/knowledge. Although he was a political and military leader as well as judge, effectively serving the role of king, we never refer to him as King Moshe or as General Moshe, but always as משה רבינו, Moshe Rabenu, Moses, our teacher.
Da’at doesn’t mean mastering a collection of facts. Rather, it is the resolution of חכמה, chochma, inspiration and בינה, bina, analysis. It also requires having a deep, intimate and interactive relationship with the knowledge (this aspect of the word is behind the clichéd phrase “biblical knowing” as euphemism for an intimate sexual relationship).
Only Moshe, of all our prophets, is described as communicating with God פנים אל פנים, panim al panim, face to face. This is the posture of true conversation, of an intimate encounter. Likewise, when chochma, inspiration, is processed by bina, analysis, in other words,when these two intellectual faculties truly and fully commune with each other, panim al panim, as it were, da’at, knowledge/wisdom is born.
The Zohar emphasizes the importance of this face-to-face relationship. It teaches that Adam, the primordial human, was first created with his feminine and masculine natures back-to-back. At that point, the world is still in a state of potential–nothing has yet started to grow. Only when this unproductive relationship is realigned, enabling a face-to-face relationship between man and woman, is life really created. Only at this point do the rains fall and the plants begin to sprout and grow, and only in this balanced and equal relationship does human life proceed.
Thus, Moshe is the first in our heritage who achieves this balance and this self-knowledge. Bringing the Torah to the Jewish People and thence to the world, he experiences, learns, knows and teaches what it means to be truly and fully human. This knowledge empowers him to not only evaluate the advice his father-in-law gives him, but also to adopt it without feeling his own authority threatened or challenged.
It’s not an easy path to achieve this level of wisdom, of self-knowledge and confidence. It’s all too easy to fall prey to arrogance along the way which makes these spiritual goals impossible to reach. Moshe’s solution, as we see in his initial role judging the people, gives a hint that at least one key is selflessness.
When we see Moshe burning himself out as he is doing, the obvious question is why would this fount of wisdom and knowledge engage in something so self-destructive? Another tradition informs us that Moshe came into the world to rectify the soul of Noah. Noah, for all his dedication, was flawed (he was described as a צדיק בדורו, tzadik b’doro, a righteous man in his generation, and one opinion is that only relative to his contemporaries was he righteous). When told of the impending flood and mass destruction, yes he obeys the divine command to build the ark to save a remnant of life, but we don’t see him praying, arguing with God, to save his fellow humans. Ultimately, he focused his efforts on himself. Moshe’s action to repair this flaw was to concern himself with every single member of his people, to act with such selflessness that would ultimately be unsustainable. This openness, this ability to truly listen to others (how else can one resolve disputes if not by listening to what each side has to say?), allows him to see the wisdom Yitro offers him and to return to a healthy balance.
Moshe’s trait of דעת, wisdom/relationship is identical to his practice of real dialogue. We need to both know who we truly are and to be open, face-to-face, to know the other and truly communicate.