"Pick for yourselves from each of your tribes men who are wise, discerning and experienced, and I will appoint them as your head" Deuteronomy 1:13


In Exodus 18:21, Moses's father-in-law Jethro advised him to delegate the burdensome task of judging the people by appointing ranks of deputy judges. When Moses retells the story here, in his farewell address to the next generation of Israelites, the account differs in two ways. There, the appointees are described by ethical qualities: "capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain". Here, the qualifications are more intellectual: wisdom, understanding and knowledge.

The second difference is that in Exodus it is Moses who chooses, while in our portion Moses asks the people themselves to choose their judges, and they indicate their approval to Moses: "What you propose to do is good!" (1:14).

In the recent referendum campaign we heard political voices saying people had "had enough of experts". As one newspaper commentator put it satirically, "Experts schmexperts. What do they know? Follow your heart! Trust your instincts!"

When Deuteronomy emphasises the people's role in recommending suitable judges to Moses, perhaps it takes for granted that they will seek people of honesty and integrity - that's in their own interest. They need to be reminded, however, not to neglect expertise, scholarship and wisdom. These might not always be the most popular of qualities, but are equally necessary for a sound judiciary and a well-guided society.

In the wilderness, when the people were newly liberated from slavery and dependent on God for everything, even the manna from heaven, the emphasis was on Moses choosing incorruptible judges for them. Now, as the next generation stand on the verge of the Promised Land, ready to create a new, enduring society, Moses reshapes the narrative for them: stand on your own feet, choose your own leaders and judges, and don't despise the knowledge and experience of experts as you shape your future in an uncertain world.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive