This week’s parasha starts Moshe’s historical review of בני ישראל's 40-year journey:
But when we look at the original incident when the judges were appointed, we notice something missing:
Moshe leaves out Yitro’s role completely. While some argue that it simply isn’t relevant to this review, it would seem to be a fundamental principle in intellectual honesty to cite one’s sources:
Some, like Rabbi Leibtag, take the approach that Moshe here is not talking about judges per se, but teachers and leaders, so it isn’t really Yitro’s proposal at all:
But still, the original suggestion was by Yitro. And Rabbi Leibtag’s idea that the historical introduction was to the “devarim” of the rest of the ספר doesn’t seem to fit the text. The whole history part, the first speech, is all reproach and criticism of בני ישראל, a summary of “why it took 40 years to get to this point”. And the later psukim draw a parallel with the appointment of the judges, in the selection of the spies:
We begin with an assumption that is fairly safe—that Mosheh was going to mention the story of the scouts (M’raglim) in this historic recitation. This is a safe assumption because that one event (solely, if not chiefly) is what caused the present situation—only now were we prepared to enter the Land, instead of having been there for nearly 39 years.
That being the case, Mosheh may be telling us about the judges in order to draw an “inverted parallel” with the disaster of the M’raglim. Note how he describes the genesis of the mission of the scouts…
The association with the “judges” narrative is clear—the common Anashim is one connection, as well as the reaction (Mosheh’s in one case, the people’s in the other)—which includes the phrase Tov haDavar (albeit with some grammatical variation). Now that we see the association of these two stories, we can immediately spot the difference, as per this chart:
Who Selected the Anashim?
As we can see, the M’raglim incident, which led to a disaster of great proportions, was handled in the opposite manner of the appointment of judges (which was, from everything we know, a successful process). This teaches us a valuable lesson about leadership - one which was indispensable advice to the people as they were about to enter the Land and come under new leadership (Yehoshua).
Ideally, the leader actually leads—he inspires the people and directs them. Nevertheless, he cannot act without their approval and support—hence, even though Mosheh suggested the idea of the judges, the people’s approval was a necessary step in the success of this venture. Afterwards, however, it was Mosheh who selected the right people for the job.
When the opposite direction is taken, disaster is inevitable and imminent. In the story of the scouts, the people made the demand and Mosheh approved (but we get the sense that it was more of a “rubber stamp”, realizing that the people would rebel if he didn’t give in)—and then the people selected their representatives for the mission.
In other words, by telling us the story about the judges (in apposition to the scouts), Mosheh is teaching us about leadership. The leaders must be the ones who direct, with the support and approval (referendum) of the people—and they must execute their decisions. If, on the other hand, the people are leading the leader, who has no choice but to approve and leave the execution up to them—disaster is the assured result.
Rabbi Etshalom does not mention why Yitro is left out. I am going to disagree with him and propose that the parallel is not to contrast the “good” selection of the judges with the “bad” selection of the spies, but that the failure of the spies serves to illustrate the failure of the judges. The judges were supposed to be leaders of the people, but they were nowhere to be found:
The contrast is with מעמד הר סיני, when the leaders represented the people. Note that this is before the judges were selected:
And in fact, only 3 days after they leave Sinai, Moshe finds that he has no help in leading the people:
Note the complaint, לא אוכל אנכי לבדי לשאת את כל העם הזה, is almost the same as what led to the appointment of the judges, איכה אשא לבדי טרחכם ומשאכם וריבכם. How did it go so badly? Rashi finds a hint in Moshe’s words, demonstrating that the mention of the judges here, in דברים, is in fact part of the reproach:
Moshe does not mention Yitro’s contribution, not to take credit for himself, but to spare Yitro’s honor. I would propose that, in fact, Moshe did not follow his father-in-law’s advice, and here is taking responsibility for that failure. Yitro suggested selecting אנשי חיל יראי אלקים אנשי אמת שנאי בצע. Moshe interpreted that differently:
What did Moshe consider אנשי חיל? The text does not say in שמות, but here it says אנשים חכמים ונבנים וידעים. Moshe selected them for their intelligence and analytic ability, not for their honesty and G-d fearing nature. And that led to their corruption.
Moshe makes this point later when he teaches the laws of appointing judges. The criteria are based on honesty, not brilliance:
As we move toward Tisha B’Av, it’s a point worth remembering.