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Constructive Criticism

Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )

by Rabbi Ozer Alport

Parshas Yisro begins by relating that Yisro heard about all of the miracles that God performed for the Jewish people. This motivated him to come join the Jewish people in the desert and to convert to Judaism. Although Exodus 18:1 calls him Yisro, Rashi notes that we find seven different names used in reference to him. Each name connotes a different aspect of his personality or accomplishments.

One of the seven names is Yeser (יתר), which is also the Hebrew word that means "to add." Rashi explains that this name refers to the fact that a portion of the Torah was added based on Yisro's suggestion to Moshe in our parsha that he establish a system of courts and judges.

However, in referencing the section that was added based on Yisro's proposal, Rashi curiously quotes the verse (Ex. 18:21) in which Yisro delineated his plan to Moshe and enumerated the requirements for proper judges. This is difficult to understand, as a cursory perusal of the parsha reveals that Yisro's exchange with Moshe began several verses earlier (Ex. 18:17), when he advised Moshe that the current arrangement was flawed and unsatisfactory. Why does Rashi seem to misquote the beginning of the portion of judges added by Yisro?

The Imrei Emes was once present at a Rabbinical conference in Warsaw that was called to discuss the burning issues of the day and to brainstorm possible solutions. There was one man present who seemed to take great pleasure in finding fatal flaws and poking holes in every proposal that was mentioned. Eventually, the astute Imrei Emes approached the critic and said that because he seemed to be so good at raising questions, he would like to pose to him one of his own.

The Imrei Emes turned to the cynic and asked him our earlier question about Rashi's citation, to which the man had no answer. The sagacious Rebbe proceeded to cleverly answer his own question. He told the critic that without much effort, virtually anybody can find problems with the status quo or tear apart a new proposal. Rare is the individual who constructively offers an alternative plan of action.

In intentionally quoting the later verse as the beginning of the portion added as a result of Yisro, Rashi is teaching us that had Yisro only approached Moshe to criticize the current system as flawed without offering a viable alternative, he wouldn't have merited an additional section in the Torah. It was only because Yisro's critique was a constructive introduction of a superior alternative did the Torah find it worthy of recording.

We live in a society in which it has become natural and even praiseworthy to show one's brilliance by criticizing the broken status quo and calling for change while attacking any solutions proposed by somebody else. Co-workers do it well, spouses do it better, and many of those who've perfected the art are now running for President. While we cannot change the approach of others, we can internalize for ourselves Rashi's lesson that while anybody can focus on finding faults, a true leader and innovator will concentrate on proposing constructive solutions.

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When Yisro observed Moshe sitting in judgment from the morning until the evening, he commented that the current arrangement was problematic and would wear Moshe out over time. He advised Moshe to appoint judges to assist him so that he wouldn't have to spend his entire day sitting in judgment.

Recognizing that these judges wouldn't be as capable as Moshe and would inevitably need his assistance, Yisro added that these judges should come to Moshe for his judgment on any דבר גדול - major matter (Exodus 18:22). However, it is interesting to note that the Torah records that Moshe subtly deviated from Yisro's instructions, as he instituted a system in which the judges brought to him any דבר קשה - difficult matter (Exodus 18:26). Why did Moshe stray from Yisro's recommendation, and what was the deeper underlying difference between their two approaches?

Rabbi Chaim Berlin explains that Yisro judged the value and importance of a court case by the amount of money at stake. As such, he advised Moshe that only cases involving large sums of money were worthy of his time and consideration. Moshe, however, understood that the Torah's goal is to promote justice and therefore assigns the same significance to a case involving millions of dollars as it does to one involving only a few cents. In his eyes, the primary determinant of a case deserving of his valuable time and expertise was one which was difficult for the lower judges to resolve.

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The Talmud (Shabbos 88a) teaches that when the Jewish people were encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, God lifted the mountain above them like a barrel and threatened them that if they won't accept the Torah, שם תהא קבורתכם - there will be your burial place. If God's intention was to frighten them so that they would accept the Torah, why did He transform the mountain into a barrel, which isn't particularly scary, instead of simply picking it up and leaving it looming over their heads like the scary mountain that it already was?

Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik of Zurich (V'HaIsh Moshe) explains that a person who is trapped inside of a barrel is technically capable of surviving for a long period of time. However, his life will be incredibly limited, as he is barely able to move or experience any variety in his life. Similarly, if the Jews had declined to accept the Torah, they would have theoretically been able to survive in this world just like the other nations of the world. However, just like the person trapped in the barrel, their existence would have been limited to fulfilling mundane needs, without exceptional growth or spirituality. God transformed the mountain into a barrel to symbolize that if they refused to accept the Torah, they could continue to survive, but their lives would be limited and empty.

When God said that if they didn't accept the Torah they would be buried there, He didn't mean that the mountain would crush and bury them, but that they would live as if they were trapped in barrels, which is the spiritual equivalent of death.

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