Parashat Yitro—What’s the Purpose of School?

What’s the purpose of school? To some, school is purely about putting students on the path to a good job. To others, the goal is to create good citizens, or to learn how to think, or to be part of the Western (and/or Jewish) intellectual and cultural tradition.

Our parashah offers a powerful argument in favor of another answer: the purpose of education is to empower.

The first part of the parashah describes the extended encounter between Moshe and his father-in-law, Yitro, soon after the Israelites left Egypt. The day after Yitro arrives, he comes to observe Moshe at work, and sees him working from dawn until dusk, with the people crowded around him all day long.

At the end of the day, Yitro asks Moshe about what he observed, and Moshe responds that he spends each day judging the people’s disputes and teaching them rules. Yitro then makes two suggestions. Most readers focus on the second part of his answer, in which he tells Moshe to set up a hierarchical system of judges so that only the toughest cases come to him. For good reason, we still talk about this a lot today: Yitro’s advice is a powerful lesson that every leader, even Moses, needs to delegate.

But before he describes the multi-tiered judicial system, Yitro says something else that I never noticed until this week, when I read the commentary of Avraham ibn Ezra. The first step, says Yitro, is to teach the laws to the Israelites. Moshe had described teaching the people reactively: they’d come with a dispute, and he would settle it and tell them the law. Yitro reverses the order, and says, “Teach them first!” 

As ibn Ezra points out, a big part of teaching first, instead of reactively, will involve teaching big principles first, and then individual laws. First come concepts like loving and revering God, not being arrogant, not holding grudges — and then come individual mitzvot. Both general and specific are important, but to Yitro, the broader vision comes first, and then the specifics.

And the purpose of this education is empowerment. By learning the principles and the laws, the people will become more independent. They won’t need Moshe to settle each dispute; they will be better able to make choices, manage conflicts, and live as God intended.

This is a big goal of our work at Gross Schechter. May all of our children grow to be empowered, independent, and rooted in the Torah’s values and mitzvot.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Jonathan Berger
Associate Head of School for Judaic Studies and Programs

Questions for the Shabbat table:
  1. Why do you think Moshe didn’t see the importance of delegating on his own; why did he need someone else to point it out?

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