Yitro is frequently praised in Jewish sources for inspiring his prophet son-in-law, Moses, to set up a judicial system and delegate his many responsibilities so that the Israelites could continue building their civilization. We might understand Yitro as the first cross-cultural consultant. A Midianite, he visited the Israelites’ camp, where he studied the situation, asked a few questions, expressed evaluations, offered a proposal, observed its implementation, and promptly left (Exodus 18:1-27). Yitro’s significance cannot be overstated: he revolutionized the community’s judicial systems into hierarchical tiers. It’s curious, therefore, that his questions that enabled him to provide such profound guidance haven’t received more scrutiny in either classic or modern commentaries.

When Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you alone sit while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” (Exodus 18:14)

About a decade ago, Nicholas Carr argued that the internet further undermines our capacity for deep reflection by giving us quick, superficial impressions and summaries. In today’s age of shallow thinking (added to implicit biases that are human nature), people fixate primarily on the what: “what’s your job,” “what do you stand for,” or “what’s your opinion on this?” Knowing another person’s what allows us to categorize them. We assume that by knowing what someone’s job or position is, we can easily figure out everything else that’s important to know about them.

Anyone near the Israelites can see what Moses is doing: sitting as a judge while everyone else mills around waiting their turn to be heard. Understanding his why requires thoughtful questions. A midrash describes the scene Yitro observed:

‘And Moses’ father-in-law saw’: What did he see? He saw him sitting like a king on his throne and all paying attendance upon him, whereupon he said to him: ‘What is this that you are doing to the people? Why do you alone sit?’ (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael on Exodus 18:14).

One might conclude that Moses relishes in his authority at the expense of those he serves. But such shallow impressions leave Yitro unsatisfied. He pushes deeper; he asks Moses why he does what he does. He wants to know the rationale behind Moses’ practice. Yitro is curious and wants to understand how Moses views himself and leadership.

Moses explains to his father-in-law that he does three things:

  1. When people come to him, he inquires of God (Exodus 18:15), which Rabbeynu Bahya understands to mean that he prays for their health or implores God to find their lost items.
  2. When people have a dispute, he judges between them (Exodus 18:16a).
  3. He informs the people of God’s statutes and teachings (Exodus 18:16b).

Moses clarifies his three roles to Yitro: he is simultaneously prophet, judge, and teacher. In his view, he is as indispensable to the people as he is to God. They-the people and God-need him to do all of this.

Yitro, however, replies, “the thing you do is not good.” He explains that it’s exhausting for everyone involved. Specifically, Moses is acting as judge when people bring a dispute (davar) to him. According to the 14th Century Provençal scholar Levi ben Gershon, when Moses is so immersed in the role of being a judge, prophecy will not come to him when God wishes. Moses’ fixation on doing so much compromises his ability to perform each of these roles. He prioritizes busy-ness over being.

Something needs to change; the issue is not only what should change, but why.

Yitro encourages Moses to continue in his roles as prophet and teacher but advises him to delegate his judicial responsibilities to other qualified individuals, which will benefit everyone (Exodus 18:21-23). This appears to be a kind of consequentialist argument: so that benefits will ensue, delegate. But this is not how Yitro framed his proposal. He said, “Now listen to me, I will give you counsel: God be with you (v’yihi Elohim ‘imach)” (Exodus 18:19).

Yitro reminds Moses that being with God is a core value that should guide him in aligning his life and labors with divine concerns. He emphasizes the importance of being value-driven (the “why”) instead of only goal-oriented (the “what”).

Yitro assures Moses that were he to live by his core value, he “[could] stand and all the people [could] go to their homes whole” (Exodus 18:23). Yitro’s genius lies not only in his judicial innovations but also in his focus on values. The challenge he presents is counter-cultural and very personal. It’s as if Yitro says to Moses (and to us):

“Do not be satisfied with the shallowness of what. Rather, pursue your convictions and let your why guide you. You may find your inner prophet waiting to arise.”