Good Ideas Take Longer – Yitro 5781

D'var Torah | Exodus

One of the lesser-known biblical commentators is eighteenth century Italian rabbi Isaac Samuel Riggio. But while his fame is limited, his insights are still valuable. A recurrent concern for traditional biblical commentators is the resolution of seeming contradictions in the text. Modern biblical critics have an easier time since such contradictions can be simply attributed to different sources that were woven together in the text by a later redactor or editor. For those who insist on retaining the integrity of the text as received though open to applying scholarly techniques the task is harder. Riggio shows how it is possible to be both modern in outlook while traditional in approach.


Having been beset by so many who sought a just settlement for their cases, Jethro suggests a remedy that would rescue Moses from being overwhelmed. Moses should appoint subordinates and organize a justice system whereby others would adjudicate the simple matters and only the most difficult would come to Moses’ attention. The suggestion was accepted and the text states that Moses “did just as he had said” (Exodus 18:24). Yet when they reach Mount Sinai and Moses prepared to ascend, he appoints Aaron and Hur to serve in his place, telling the people: “let anyone who has a legal matter approach them” (Exodus 24:14). If, as the Torah reports, Moses heeded Jethro’s advice and appointed subordinates, it would have been their task to adjudicate matters of law and thus no need to appoint Aaron and Hur! Hence, it seems, Moses did not follow Jethro’s advice and the statement in the Torah that says he did is wrong.


Riggio cannot contemplate the idea that the Torah could be in error. So some compelling solution is necessary. Based on Moses’ recollection of earlier events before his death in the opening of the book of Deuteronomy (1:9-18), Riggio concludes that Jethro’s plan was accepted earlier but not implemented until later. Thus the Torah was correct in Exodus 18:24 and also correct in Exodus 24:14 since the plan was not yet implemented.


Rabbinic hermeneutics aside, Riggio also offers a valuable insight into human decision-making. Good ideas take time to percolate; they are not always going to be immediately implemented. But if the idea is truly good, it will ultimately find expression. As Winston Churchill famously quipped: “Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else.”


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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