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Selecting Judges

Adapted from Maamarei Admur Hazaken Haketzorim by Rabbi Yossi Marcus[1]

The name of this week’s parsha is that of Moshe’s father-in-law: Yisro. This essay deals with the source of Yisro’s soul and the reason Moshe shows him such deference and love.

The essay adapted from a discourse of the Alter Rebbe of the “pre-Petersburg” period of his teachings. After his release from imprisonment in S. Petersburg, the Alter Rebbe’s teachings changed radically. If his prior teachings were brief esoteric bits of light, the teachings in the post-Petersburg era were lengthy, developed dissertations. The following essay is of the former type, taken from the book “Discourses of the Alter Rebbe, the Short Ones.”  

And Aharon and the elders of Israel came to eat bread before Elokim… (Ex. 18:12)

The interaction between Moshe and his father-in-law, Yisro (Jethro), begs for explanation. Why does Moshe bow to Yisro, the priest of Midian? And why does he show such affection for him, kissing him, etc.

The answer is that Yisro’s soul transcends that of Moshe. It is written in Likutei Torah (by Arizal) that the soul of Yisro stems from the realm of Kayin (Cain), while Moshe stems from Hevel (Abel). [That Yisro stems from Kayin is actually written in the Zohar (1:28b), which cites the verse (Judges 1:16), “And the sons of the Kenite, father-in-law of Moshe….” I.e., Yisro is referred to as a Kenite, which the Zohar interprets as a soul of the realm of Kayin.]

The realm of Kayin is much loftier than that of Hevel. As it is written in Sefer Hagilgulim (“The Book of Incarnations” chapters 23, 26, et al), all souls of the realm of Kayin are extremely lofty souls. Thus Moshe, who is of the realm of Hevel, bows to Yisro.

Now Kayin is the realm Gevurah. Thus Kayin is numerically equivalent to sela, rock (160). Indeed it is written: “[Bilam saw the Kenite and said:] ‘…set in a rock (sela) is your nest (kinecha)” (Num. 24:21) [an allusion to Kayin].

It is therefore written that with Yisro they ate bread “before Elokim.” For Elokim is the Name that embodies Gevurah.

Similarly, the “sons of Elokim” refer to the lofty souls of the realm of Kayin.

Of them it is written (Gen. 6:2): “And the sons of Elokim saw the daughters of man that they were good…and they took for themselves wives….” (This cannot refer only to the two angels Shemchazai and Azael who fell from heaven [see Rashi Numbers 28:33], since the verse seems to imply that there were many sons of Elokim who took many of the daughters of earth.) They were drawn after corporeal desires because of their lofty source. As the Talmud states (Sukkah 52a, end): “The greater the man the greater his temptation.”

[In any case, the  Talmud relates the following: The sage Abaye once overheard a man say to a woman, “Let us rise early and set out on on the way.” Abaye said to himself, “I will go and keep them from sin.” He followed them for a distance of three parsah. When they parted, he heard one say to the other, “Our paths are far apart; but the company would have been pleasant.” Abaye said: “If it were  “my enemy” [a euphemism for himself], he would not have been able to control himself.” He went and leaned against a door bolt and was distressed. A certain old man came and told him: “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his inclination is greater than his fellow’s.” According to some opinions, this statement was made by Elijah the Prophet (see Tosafot Chullin 6a).]

This follows the principle that whatever is highest falls lowest. For Adam’s sin of the Tree of Knowledge caused the blending of good and evil. This occurred in such a way that beings with a large level of goodness gained a proportionately large and powerful measure of evil.

And so it is in each generation. There are many souls from the realm of Kayin, which are much loftier than those of Hevel. When they fall, their drive for evil is far greater. “According to the camel is the load” (Kesubos 67a).

Sefer Hagilgulim lists various ancient souls including the sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud and designates them as stemming either from Kayin or Hevel. There are in fact signs by which to recognize the roots of souls. It is written in Sefer Hakavanos (“The Book of Meditations”)[1], one who is wrapped in a tallis from right to left and left to right is from the realm of Hevel. And one whose nature and custom is to fold the two sides of his tallis on his two shoulders is from the realm of Kayin. (It was the Baal Shem Tov’s custom to fold his tallis on his shoulder, and perhaps he was from the realm of Kayin).

(This idea of recognizing the roots of souls is also alluded to by Yisro when he advises Moshe to appoint judges over the nation. Yisro says “and you shall look about…(vi’atah techzeh).” I.e., in choosing the judges Moshe should follow the signs described in the Zohar regarding the furrows of the forehead, similar to the above differences between the souls of the realm of Kayin and those of Hevel. This should suffice for he that understands.

[On the words of Yisro to Moshe “and you shall look about and choose out of all the people able men…” the Zohar (2:70a) presents a lengthy exposition on the idea that a person’s physical features reveal his nature. “The character of man is revealed in the hair, the forehead, the eyes, the lips, the features of the face, the lines of the hands, and even the ears.” For many pages the Zohar describes different hair types, foreheads, eyes, and the personalities that they represent, as well as a discourse on palmistry. A description of one type of forehead reads as follows (translation follows Soncino):

“A large rounded forehead indicates one who is open-minded and generally gifted. He can acquire any kind of knowledge, even without a teacher. … He can infer great things from small; hence he is rightly called discerning. He is detached from the things of this world… He is tenderhearted. His forehead is deeply furrowed by two wrinkles, set high upon his brow, one over each eye. His forehead also has three long lines, and between his eyes is the double vertical furrow, which signifies deep thought. He is always concerned with realities and not with appearances, because he does not care what men say about him… So much for the mystery connected with the study of the forehead.”])

Hence And Aharon and the elders of Israel came to eat bread before Elokim…, which is the level of Gevurah, the root of Kayin, referring to the root of the soul of Yisro, who is of the “sons of Elokim,” as explained.

[Because of his connection to Gevurah, severity and judgment,] Yisro merited to study the laws of judges and to implement the use of many judges to help Moshe.  In addition, his offspring sat on the Sanhedrin and were great tzadikim and ascetics, as alluded to in Scipture (I Chronicles 2:55, see below).

[The Talmud records that because of his good deeds—his hospitality towards Moses in telling his daughters (Ex. 2:20), “call him and let him eat bread” (Sanhedrin 104a), or the fact that he [protested Pharaoh’s decision to throw the Jewish children into the Nile and] ran away from Egypt (ibid. 106a)—Yisro merited that his descendants became great Torah scholars and sat on the Sanhderin. The Talmud points to the verse in Chronicles as support for the above assertion.]

In the future, when the mixture of good and evil will be sifted and the realm of Kayin will be purified of all waste, it will be above that of Hevel, as gold surpasses silver, as explained elsewhere….. This should suffice for he that understands.

[Adapted by Rabbi Yosef Marcus from Maamarei Admur Hazaken Haketzorim p. 47. a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "the Alter Rebbe."]


[1] See Pri Etz Chaim, Shaar Hakrias Shema 3; Mishnas Chasidim, Meseches Tefilas Haberiah 3:3,4.

Rabbi Yossi Marcus is director of Chabad outreach activities in S. Mateo, California. He is also the editor of the Q&A database at AskMoses.com and is one of the translators at Kehot Publication Society.


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