A Society of Equality
Back in the late 1990’s I was working for a hi-tech startup company in Israel. It was my first time working for a startup. I found that the working and organizational environment was radically different from every other workplace that I had experienced up to that point. Beyond the benefits of a fully stocked kitchen, free lunches in restaurants, free dry cleaning, on-site massages if you worked till late and company provided weekends away, the thing that shocked me the most was the extreme collaborative environment that the company promoted.
The company had weekly update meetings where everyone was invited to attend. Part of the meeting was to discuss and update on the various projects, but the larger portion of the meeting was dedicated to troubleshooting ongoing issues that had come up in the past week, be it in sales, product development, customer support or any other department. It was at one of these meetings that a specific product development idea was being brainstormed. All the obvious contributors had made their positions on the subject well known, when I heard an unexpected voice from the back of the room - it was the janitor making a suggestion. His suggestion was logical, it was appropriate and it was adopted.
Everyone has an equal voice - if you can contribute you are welcome to lend your voice to the betterment of the collective, to the improvement and success of a product or any other communal goal. No voice should be disregarded just because of the person's status in the organizational hierarchy. If the hierarchy empowers everyone to have an equal voice regardless of status, then people will feel empowered to speak up and share their ideas - good or bad - no idea is without merit.
This was the society that Moses envisioned for Israel.
At the beginning of Parashat Yitro we read about Moses’ father in-laws visit to the Israelite camp. Following the celebrations marking his arrival, Moses returns to work. Yitro notices how Moses sits all day answering questions for the Israelites without anyone helping him. He acts as a teacher and judge, he settles disputes between neighbors and offers advice. Everyone is able to approach Moses and receive his judgment or wisdom - he is available to everyone regardless of age, sex or social status. Obviously with this kind of workload, Moses would burn out in no time. Yitro understands this and suggests a new hierarchical bureaucracy where there will be judges of 10, judges of 100’s and judges of 1,000’s - all ultimately reporting to Moses.
What’s not made clear in the text is that Moses really didn’t need Yitro’s advice on this subject. We know that Moses grew up in the palaces of Egypt and was very familiar with the bureaucracy of effective government. Egypt was a land with a very organized government with hundreds of years of experience in state administration. A hierarchical system of government would not have been foreign to the Israelites and specifically not unknown to Moses.
Therefore we must ask ourselves the question, “Why did Moses not implement an organized legal structure prior to Yitro’s council?” It was obvious Moses knew of it and it was obviously very necessary.
A nation of the wise and understanding
Apparently Moses wasn’t motivated by practical considerations but influenced by a totally different reasoning. Apparently for Moses this was a matter of principle.The implication of Yitro’s suggestion is the establishment of a hierarchical system of ranks within the Jewish people. When someone has a question he or she must turn to the person who is in charge of them. This person in turn has their own superior in charge of him and so on and so forth through the hierarchical ranks. This is therefore a situation that creates ranks of people within the society.
Moses has demonstrated his resistance to dividing the people by rank or class in other instances as well. However it is not just Moses’ personal desire; The Torah describes the Jewish people as follows: “This great nation is certainly a wise and understanding people” (Deut. 4:6). The notion of an entire people that is “wise and understanding” is a basic tenet of our belief system. In almost every society and culture, a class distinction exists between the learned and the ignorant, and is often considered an ideal social framework. The aspiration of the Jewish people, however, is quite the opposite. We believe that ideally, everyone should be wise and understanding. From this standpoint there is a fundamental difference between the Jewish people and other societies. There is no point at which a Jew is told that he is no longer permitted to learn and understand more. Even at Sinai, where God spoke with Israel face to face, all of Israel were present, without any distinctions.
Moses’ policy is the principle that all the people are equal. In his view, a system of hierarchical rule would spell the ruin of the Jewsih people’s equality. Moses insisted on judging the people by himself since he felt that no one should be barred from approaching him directly. Every person is important enough to go directly to Moses. Moses does not set up an organized structure not because it does not occur to him, but rather because he does not want one. By creating a system of ranks within the people, while some would become leaders, most others would be disenfranchised commoners. This runs counter to the view that “all the people in the community are holy, and God is in their midst.”
Moses is willing to bear not only his own suffering but also the inevitable collapse of the judicial system. Such was his conviction that the Jewsih people must not be segregated by class. Yitro is obviously a very practical thinker who recognizes that what Moses is trying to do is unsustainable.
Is it possible to create a society where everyone is on an equal level? Is this not the premise of a democracy? According to the Mirriam Webster dictionary the definition of democracy is:
government by the people
a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges
However, in practice this ideal is not completely possible. The idea that people are equal to one and another in wisdom or ability is clearly false. People are not alike in their height, in their appearance, in their abilities, or in their intelligence. The idea that an ordinary person can decide on questions of international diplomacy or economic policy is fundamentally illogical.
Moses knew that people are not equal in every aspect so why did he insist that they are equal? For Moses the principle of equality springs from his belief in the soul, which is unconnected to intellect or to reason. The soul is abstract, it is spiritual and holy. We have no way of discerning or even understanding any criteria to determine which soul is higher or lower. Therefore in Moses’ eyes, all souls are equal. “All the people in the community are holy.”
Question Everything Always
Yitro’s delegation of authority is basically technical and the divisions between higher and lower judges are practical, not essential. The people of Israel are now organized by rank, however this does not mean that a leader of 1,000’s is a hundred times wiser that the leader of tens. It is totally possible that he is not wiser at all. In practice we must establish ranks because otherwise there would be total chaos.
A lesson that we can learn is that there is no person who can’t be questioned; no one is immune. The Talmud says, “Even father and son, master and disciple - when they are engaged in Torah study they become each other’s enemies” (Kiddushin 30b). This teaches us that although the son is obligated to honor his father or the disciple honor his master, he does not have to agree with him. A person’s duty to honor his father and teachers only means that he must show them respect, not that he must agree with them and cannot question them.
Therefore the verse, “This great nation is certainly a wise and understanding people”, takes on a practical meaning. Everyone can ask questions and no one is immune from them.
Even after Yitor’s counsel was adopted, it established only a practice framework, not an essential one. Ultimately, the principle that Moses advocated remained the true philosophical construct underlying the essential framework of our society. If only Moses’ original method of judging and answering questions could be implemented practically as well. Reality has its limits and does not allow for such a system to survive. Nevertheless this does not invalidate the intrinsic value of Moses' system, only practical viability.
Coming back to the hi-tech company I worked in, we were encouraged to question everything. Question established rules, rethink how a product can be engineered, rethink established norms. We might not make any changes, but maybe, just maybe we can find a better way of doing something. We might discover a new invention or change the way we think about age old and established norms. Questioning everything, even when taught by a professor or expert is a uniquely Jewish attribute and one that stems from Moses’ philosophy that while practically we might require hierarchical government, we are all equal in questioning and holding those in positions of power accountable for their decisions.