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To Hear the Baby Cry (Yitro)

Although often subject to criticism, government is one of the most remarkable concepts that we humans have ever innovated. In its most limited sense, government is the force that maintains law and order within society; “were it not for the fear of government,” noted the Talmudic sage R. Hanina, “men would swallow each other alive” (Avodah Zara 4a). Yet government does not only protect us from harm. It also provides for our welfare, through public services such as education, healthcare, transportation, food inspection, waste management, and postal delivery. All these services require a high degree of planning and coordination if they are to be effectively administered. In fact, the job of maintaining them is not one that our elected officials are capable of handling on their own. All we must do is compare the population sizes of the world’s three largest countries (China: 1.3 billion; India: 1.2 billion; United States: 316 million) with the number of seats in those countries’ national legislatures (2987, 795, and 535, respectively), and the need for lawmakers to delegate authority becomes immediately apparent.

It was out of this need that the system which we now refer to as “bureaucracy”—literally, “rule by desks”—was born. Among advocates for this system, arguably none was as influential as the renowned German sociologist Max Weber. Here is what Weber wrote of bureaucracy in his magnum opus, Economy and Society:

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Max Weber

Experience tends universally to show that the purely bureaucratic type of administrative organization… is, from a purely technical point of view, capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency, and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of exercising authority over human beings. It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its discipline, and in its reliability… Regardless how many people may complain about the “red tape,” it would be sheer illusion to think for a moment that continuous administrative work can be carried out in any field except by means of officials working in offices. The whole pattern of everyday life is cut to fit this framework.

What Weber tells us in this passage is that society must be rigidly organized if its needs are to be successfully managed. Our civil servants should be hierarchically structured, so as to alleviate pressure upon those at the top, and their roles should be clearly delineated, so that each query or complaint presented by a member of the general public can be directed to a specific address. These seem like common sense suggestions whose utility anybody could appreciate. In fact, they bear striking resemblance to the suggestions given by Yitro to his son-in-law, Moshe, at the start of this week’s Torah portion:

It came about on the next day [after Yitro arrived at the camp of the Israelites] that Moshe sat down to judge the people, and the people stood before Moshe from the morning until the evening. When Moshe’ father in law saw what he was doing to the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening?… The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out—both you and these people who are with you—for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will advise you, and may the Lord be with you…  Choose out of the entire nation men of substance, God fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over the nation leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens. And they shall judge the people at all times, and it shall be that any major matter they shall bring to you, and they themselves shall judge every minor matter, thereby making it easier for you, and they shall bear [the burden] with you. If you do this thing, and the Lord commands you, you will be able to survive, and also, all this people will come upon their place in peace” (Exod. 18:13-23).

When Yitro discovers that Moshe is adjudicating the disputes of the Israelites all by himself, he recommends that his son-in-law appoint “leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens”  By doing so, Yitro claims, Moshe will reduce wait times for the Israelites and reduce his own stress as well. It is sound advice, and Moshe ultimately heeds it. Yet what is surprising is that Moshe did not think of this plan on his own.  After all, Moshe must have sensed that he was handling a nearly impossible load; the option of sharing that load with others surely occurred to him, too. Why, then, did he refuse to relinquish any of his responsibility until he was urged to do so?


R. Yehuda Amital

R. Yehuda Amital, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, dealt with this question in a lecture to his students entitled “The Message beyond Mere Words.” In this lecture—which was translated into English and published in his book, Jewish Values in a Changing World—R. Amital explained:

Some words speak; others send a message. There are times when words denote nothing more than their plain sense; but there are also times when words send out a message that tells us much more than what was actually stated. A person must be sensitive enough to hear what lies behind the words…

In response to Yitro’s astonishment about the way Moshe would sit with the people from morning to night, Moshe explained to his father-in-law what the people were really after: “And Moshe said to his father-in-law: Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a matter, they come to me…” According to Ramban, the people’s requests related to important [legal] issues…; according to Rashi, however, the people turned to Moshe even about trivial, [personal] matters…. Moshe may have understood that the people would turn to him even regarding minor matters, [purely] in order to have a connection with their leader. For this reason, he did not conduct himself at first as advised by Yitro—for nothing else could substitute for such a connection.

With characteristic empathy, R. Amital places himself “in the shoes” of the Israelites, and teaches us to listen to that which “lies behind” their words. Many of the Israelites who arrange appointments with Moshe do so in order benefit from his judicial expertise. But others, R. Amital contends, approach Moshe with different needs. For the members of this group, the shayla (Halachik inquiry) is merely an excuse to gain a private audience with their leader. What they actually desire is individual attention. These Israelites come to Moshe looking not for brilliance, but for radiance; not for wisdom, but for warmth; not for law, but for love.

If R. Amital’s reading is correct, then we readily understand why Moshe declined at first to devolve his duties to others. Moshe no doubt realized that bureaucracy is the most practical and the most professional system we have for sustaining a functioning society. But he also knew that it is the least personal. Indeed, this point was acknowledged by Max Weber himself. As Weber phrased it:

In general, bureaucratic domination has [as one of its] social consequences… the dominance of a spirit of formalistic impersonality. “Sine ire et studio”—without hatred or passion, and hence without affection or enthusiasm. The dominant norms are concepts of straightforward duty without regard to personal considerations. Everyone is subject to formal equality of treatment; that is, everyone in the same empirical situation. That is the spirit in which the ideal official conducts his office.

For Weber, “formalistic impersonality” is the trademark of the “ideal official;” in his view, the bureaucrat who executes his tasks “without regard to personal considerations” merits praise. Yet Weber’s vision of a leadership that lacks “passion,” “affection” and “enthusiasm” is not without its critics. Perhaps the most outspoken of these critics was the renowned Jewish author Franz Kafka. Kafka, who was both a contemporary and a compatriot of Weber’s, warned of the dehumanizing effects that could be wrought by excessive bureaucracy, in novels such as The Trial and The Castle. “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy,” he asserted. “The chains of tormented mankind are made out of red tape.”

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

To be fair, bureaucracy is probably not as sinister as Kafka portrays it. By drawing attention to the sense of alienation that this system breeds within those who come in contact with it, however, Kafka offers us a valuable psychological insight. Most “revolutions” do not disintegrate into “the slime of a new bureaucracy,” as Kafka insists. Yet if this how the average citizen perceives his situation, then the reality may not matter much.

Consider, for instance, the curious sequence of events that unfolds following Yitro’s departure from the camp of the Israelites. Shortly after Yitro has left, Hashem reveals the “Ten Commandments” to the nation of Israel (Exod. 19-20). Hashem then invites Moshe to ascend Mount Sinai, where Moshe will receive the “stone tablets” upon which the commandments have been written, and will learn further details of “the Law” (Exod. 24:12). Naturally, Moshe complies. Since he anticipates that he will be away from the Israelites for an extended period of time, he instructs the elders to direct “whoever has a dispute” to “Aaron and Hur” (ibid. 14)—a perfectly reasonable application of the bureaucratic principles in which he had been trained by his father-in-law.  Moshe then “climbs up the mountain and spends there forty days and forty nights” (ibid. 18).

The way the Israelites respond to Moshe’s absence is most telling. At first, they are apparently quite receptive to Aaron and Hur. Yet as days and weeks pass with no word from their leader, the patience of the people starts to wear thin. Has our “revolution” been subverted by the “slime of this new bureaucracy?” some wonder openly. The Israelites feel abandoned—and in their desperation, they turn to idolatry:

When the people saw that Moshe was delaying in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Come on! Make us gods that will lead us, because this man Moshe, who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we don’t know what has become of him!” (Exod. 32:1).

What triggers the sin of the Golden Calf is not a crisis of faith, but a crisis of leadership: it is because the Israelites no longer believe that their leader cares about them that they implement a new regime. The deep irony here, of course, is that Moshe has spent the better part of two months tending to the needs of the nation day and night. He never forgot about the Israelites for a minute; indeed, he left them only in order to broker a divine covenant on their behalf. This work is so demanding that Moshe cannot even find the time to eat a proper meal (see Deut. 9:9). The man is totally consumed by his obligations to the people whom he serves. Yet to those people themselves, none of this is relevant. All they know is that their leader is inaccessible at the moment. Thus, to them, he is as good as dead.

How do we, as readers, interpret this tragic breakdown of the community?

On one hand, the Israelites deserve unequivocal blame for fashioning and worshiping the Golden Calf. The fact that they felt lost without their leader does not in any way mitigate the severity of the sin to which they succumbed. “Throughout Tanach,” we pointed out last year, “idolatry—the Bible’s idiom for spiritual decay and degeneration—precipitates the moment people abdicate personal responsibility and develop an unhealthy dependence upon authority.” A mature “followership” should not expect its leader to be constantly available. They should not resent him for being busy. Instead, they should recognize his limits, and they should respect them.

On the other hand, what the reaction of the Israelites in this episode should highlight for us is how critical it is for a leader to be “present” for his people. There was nothing wrong with Moshe’s decision to recruit assistants so that he could spend forty days atop Mount Sinai. He did so because it was in the best interests of the collective at whose head he served.  Yet the lesson for us is that when leaders never come back “down to earth”—when they never leave the ivory tower, when they never take their heads out of the clouds—then they have done a disservice to those who rely upon them. That is why Hashem orders Moshe to “Go down!” as soon as the Israelites build the Golden Calf (Exod. 32:7). “I gave you your high position only for the sake of the people; now they have fallen, and as their leader, you must meet them at their level” (see Rashi ad. loc.).

It must have frustrated Moshe to have to interrupt the most important meeting of his career in order to deal with the petty problems of the masses. To his credit, though, Moshe never tried to pawn off this job onto a junior staffer. He never saw it as a waste of his time or a squandering of his talents to interact personally with the “average Israelite.” This is because Moshe did not define his success as a leader purely in terms of his tangible accomplishments—religious, economic, diplomatic or otherwise—on the community’s behalf. Great leadership, Moshe intuited, is not measured in results alone. It is also measured in relationships.

R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson

R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson

In our times, it was R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, who best exemplified what it means for a Jewish leader to balance “results” with “relationships.” Most of us associate Chabad with the vast network of emissaries, or shlichim, that the Rebbe dispatched throughout the world to run synagogues, day schools, summer camps, collegiate centers, soup kitchens, care homes for the disabled, and drug rehabilitation programs. There is no question that this network of shlichim—which today consists of approximately 4,000 families in over 75 countries—constitutes the most impressive “bureaucracy” that the Jewish people have ever produced. Yet the Rebbe’s interests were not limited to “kiruv” (Jewish religious outreach); indeed, he was a man of global vision. It was at the Rebbe’s urging, for instance, that the United States Congress proclaimed 1978 as a “Year of Education,” and it is on his birthday that “Education Day” has been celebrated each year since. The Rebbe lobbied the American government to downgrade ties with totalitarian regimes and to increase pressure upon nations that receive American foreign aid to improve their human rights records. He founded an organization to rescue children from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, advocated tirelessly for Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and established vocational schools in Israel to provide Holocaust survivors and new immigrants with marketable skills in carpentry, woodwork, agriculture, printing, publishing and textiles. These initiatives and others gained him international repute, and put him in touch with many of the leading politicians of his day—including John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Raegan, Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu.

That a single man could achieve all this in his lifetime is astounding. Even more astounding is that it was this very same man who—aside from delivering enough scholarly lectures on Torah thought to fill over 300 published volumes—made it his highest priority to correspond personally with all those requesting his counsel. Some of the Rebbe’s followers wrote to him looking for solutions to theological challenges. Some were looking for professional advice. Some were looking for marital assistance, some were looking for parenting tips, and some were struggling with depression or with the grief of losing a loved one. To all of these individuals, the Rebbe offered his unconditional support and guidance. The tens of thousands of letters he penned during his lifetime are filled with words of encouragement, comfort and hope. On three nights each week, the Rebbe also opened his door for yechidus: private meetings with anybody who came to him seeking direction, inspiration, and blessing. These sessions generally commenced in the early evening and were known to extend into the early hours of the morning. In the Rebbe’s eyes, the time devoted to these sessions was no less precious than the moments he spent poring over a folio of Talmud or brainstorming his next tikkun olam project. As the Rebbe shared in one of his letters:

The founder of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (“the Alter [i.e. ‘Old’] Rebbe”), who authored the Tanya and the Shulchan Aruch HaRav, shared his house with his oldest married son, Rabbi Dov Ber, who later succeeded him as the Mitteler Rebbe. Rabbi Dov Ber was known for his unusual power of concentration. When he was engaged in study or prayer he was totally oblivious to everything around him.

“From Generation to Generation:” Faculty of Yeshivat Har Etzion tell the Alter Rebbe’s story of the “crying baby” as they heard it from their teacher, R. Yehuda Amital (quoted above).

On one occasion, when Rabbi Dov Ber was thus engrossed, his baby sleeping in a near-by cot fell out of his cradle and began to cry. Rabbi Dov Ber did not hear the baby’s cries; but the infant’s grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, who was in his study on the upper floor and was also engrossed in his studies, did hear the baby’s cries. He interrupted his studies, went downstairs, lifted the infant, soothed it, and replaced it in its cradle. To all this, the infant’s father remained quite oblivious. Subsequently, the Alter Rebbe admonished his son: “No matter how engrossed one may be in the loftiest occupation, one must never remain insensitive to the cry of a child.”

This story is transmitted to us from generation to generation for the lasting message which it conveys. In fact, it came to characterize one of the basic tenets of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement—to hearken to the cry of a child. The “child” may be an infant in age, a minor or teenager… or it may be an adult…

No one must be so wrapped up in himself as to remain insensitive to the situation around him. Everyone can do something in his own way, beginning with himself, his family and neighborhood. In the final analysis, the whole world is like one organism which, if sick in one part or limb, is sick all over; while contributing to the wholesomeness of one part contributes to the well-being of the whole.

Every communal institution, be it a school board, a synagogue, or a charitable organization, requires a certain measure of bureaucracy to help it allocate both human and capital resources most efficiently. Even individual families can benefit from “bureaucracy,” in a sense: when parents hire babysitters or enroll their children in extracurricular activities, they are also practicing a form of “decentralization.” All of these are positive endeavors. At the same time, the imperative to “hear the baby’s cry”—and the example set by the Rebbes who echoed it—should serve as our standard in all of the positions and posts that we occupy. Whether as CEOs, as principals, as rabbis, as mothers and fathers, or simply as friends, we must remain sensitive not only to the physical and intellectual needs of those around us, but to their emotional needs as well. We must invest as much time into cultivating relationships as we do into pursuing “results.” That is how, in the words of this week’s Torah portion, we become a “holy nation,” in whose presence God dwells.

Shabbat shalom!

1 Comment

  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    This might be your best one yet, and that’s saying a great deal. Beautifully written and wonderfully motivational. Thank you so much Alex!

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