Israel never had a greater ally and supporter than Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, a ger tzedek, a righteous convert. Vayichad Yitro al kol hatovah asher asah Hashem l’Yisrael (Shemot 19:9), “And Yitro rejoiced at all the goodness that God performed for Israel”. He was so taken with Israel because of God’s relationship with and protection of Yisrael that he even joins our people!
Although Yitro does sincerely convert, becoming a full Jew in every sense, with all the future responsibilities and privileges, there is no way he can acquire our past experiences. His observations and ideas are born in his own Midianite past, before he became a Jew. Also, his relationship with Moshe as son-in-law makes it impossible for him to truly appreciate his role as Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our master teacher, nor his resulting relationship both with God and with the Jewish people.
Nonetheless, even though he is still at least partially rooted in his former reality as an outsider, he wants only the best for the his new people. But, not yet grounded in Torah (which had yet to be revealed!) and necessarily seeing the world in a more material than spiritual way, he sees his son-in-law exhausted by his job of being not merely Moshe, but Moshe Rabbenu, dedicated 24/7 to teaching even the slightest of details of Torah, that exclusive interface by which the Jewish People tie ourselves in ever-deepening relationship with The Creator. Physically, of course, it’s an exhausting job, but as the most vital way Moshe can perform his life’s work, it’s also the most invigorating.
Unfortunately, Yitro can’t call on his own first-person experience of being a slave to Pharoah. Nor did he witness the plagues that, as God’s messenger, Moshe brought down on Egypt. He wasn’t a part of the miracle of crossing the sea, a revelation of God’s divinity of such immediacy that we’re taught that a humble maidservant saw more than did the Prophet Yechezkal! While Yitro now has the opportunity to experience reality as a Jew, he has to begin that journey more than half-way through his life.
But, nonetheless, certainly meaning well even if he wasn’t even aware of the limitations in his worldview, he offers Moshe the advice of establishing a bureaucracy, a system of lower and higher courts where Moshe need only be consulted on those most difficult questions which no one else could answer. A number of commentators (including Abarbanel, Akeidat Yitzchak) point out that this became catastrophic for Israel. Rather than receiving Torah, especially in its subtlest meanings, directly from Moshe Rabbenu, they would now receive it in a much more diluted form. These commentaries point out the obvious, that while God didn’t command this structure, perhaps more based on Midianite reality than on Jewish experience, he neither endorsed nor forbade it. He left it to Moshe to decide and, perhaps too polite to ignore a well-meaning but uninformed advisor, Moshe accepts this suggestion.
The parallel with today is obvious. Overlooking specific political issues, historically the United States has been Israel’s strongest supporter and ally. In the years immediately following the Shoah, Holocaust, most European nations felt a great sense of responsibility to the newly formed State of Israel. Even in the most generous interpretation, that the international community really does have Israel’s best interests at heart, they don’t know in their kishkes, in their guts, the experiences of the Jewish People. Even granting them the best of intentions, they are outsiders. They don’t understand the experience of survival through two millennia of brutal exile in hostile environments. They haven’t experienced unending acts of war and terrorism, beginning even before becoming independent nations. They see only the material and have no grasp of the spiritual reality of being a Jew.
When Moshe listened to the advice of Yitro, well-intentioned and seemingly wise as it was, he removed just enough of his personal shepherding the Jewish People to allow the doubt and the slightly-reduced connection with The Creator to lead to the disaster of the Meraglim, Spies, requiring the 40-year wander in the wilderness and the death of an entire generation of the Jews.
Can we learn from our past mistakes in order to not repeat them now? Can we begin to understand that if advice from an ally so true as to join their destiny with ours should be rejected, “advice” from those whose affections are, let us say, somewhat less strong, be no less disastrous?