What is this thing you are doing to the people?” This is the question Yitro, priest of Midian, asks his son-in-law Moses after observing the way Moses is attempting to address every one of the Israelites’ problems himself, without any assistance or delegation of authority. The people at this moment are in disarray, a disorderly mob of refugees without any idea of where to go or what to do. In the absence of any other kind of leadership, they come to Moses with their questions and he does his best to answer them, from sunup to sundown, day after day without rest. Yitro, himself a leader of his people, accurately recognizes organizational disfunction for what it is, realizing that neither Moses nor his people can keep up this way of life very long without collapsing from exhaustion.
It isn’t simply an organizational problem Yitro is diagnosing here, however, but a spiritual one as well. This people is not simply a tribe bound to one another by a common ancestry — they are also a holy community brought together for the service of the Divine. And yet connection to the Divine is at this point concentrated into a single point in the person of Moses. Israel may have been called to be a holy people, but to what extent can they hope to realize this purpose so long as their connection with God is mediated through the person of a charismatic leader?
The consequences of this imbalance are revealed all too clearly later on in the parsha. Overawed by the majesty of God’s self-revelation at Mount Sinai, the people retreat from the encounter, begging Moses, “Let not God speak to us, lest we die.” Just as the strangeness and uncertainty of freedom in the wilderness makes them long for the familiar oppression of Egypt, in this case the terrifying immediacy of a direct contact with God leaves them grasping for something a little more mediated. And Moses, perhaps himself a little uncomfortable with the strange new world of shared authority, seems only too willing to fall back into the exhausting but comfortable role of central authority and intermediary. “Don’t worry,” he says, “this has all been a test to make sure you fear God. It’s alright — you passed!” It’s enough to make one wonder who he’s trying hardest to reassure, the people or himself?
If the story had ended there, I don’t know if our tradition would have withstood the test of time. Indeed, it is unclear whether it would have withstood the death of Moses! It is not surprising that the people reacted in terror to the responsibility that had been thrust upon them and pushed it away. What is surprising, and inspiring, is their subsequent efforts to reclaim that responsibility, to make it their own. That effort has persisted throughout Jewish history — in the lives of this generation of former slaves struggling to find their way in the wilderness, the lives of judges willing to risk death to end slavery and oppression, the lives of prophets willing to challenge the self-satisfied religious and political establishment of their day in the name of justice and compassion, and in the lives of rabbis carefully moulding the received tradition into new forms capable of surviving centuries of exile and persecution.
The thread that runs through their lives continues to run through our own, and through the lives of every generation that finds within itself the strength to wrestle with God — that is, to acknowledge the divine challenge to tear down all human systems of injustice in the name of a higher authority. It is this thread that allows us to read the words of the people, “Let not God speak to us, lest we die,” not as a prophecy, but as a challenge — the challenge to reclaim, for ourselves, the responsibility to speak.