Tell It To The Judge


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:41 p.m.
Torah reading: Exodus 18:1-20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6
Havdalah: 5:44 p.m.

The most seminal event in Jewish history, the miracle that informed, inspired and inflamed our people with passionate commitment to ethical monotheism, was the Revelation at Sinai. How strange that the biblical portion that details this phenomenon is named Yitro — after Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro), a Midianite priest. What did Yitro do to deserve such an honor?

The Bible records Yitro’s contribution even before it gives us the content of the Revelation. According to Rashi, who cites the Sifrei, our text changes the chronological order by providing Yitro’s advice for a judicial structure even before the Israelites had received the legal code by which Moses would judge them. Apparently, the Torah believes that Yitro’s advice was crucial for the implementation of the Divine Law into daily life.

What did Yitro teach Moses and Israel? Yitro sees his son-in-law standing every day from morning to evening, judging the various disputes of the Hebrews who come “to seek out God,” deciding “between a person and his neighbor,” informing each of “the statutes of God and His laws” [Exodus 18:13-16]. The Midianite sheikh, speaking from a lifetime of experience, recognizes an impossible situation: “What you are doing is not good; you will wear yourself out as well as this nation that is with you” [Ex. 18:17-19]. Yitro warns his son-in-law that he will never manage to deal with the enormous case load alone, and the people will grow impatient waiting in line.

Yitro then suggests that Moses find “men of valor, God-fearing people of truth who despise ill-gotten gain” who will establish district courts. These people, who are financially and constitutionally able to resist the pressures of the wealthy and powerful, will arbitrate the daily disputes that can plague a nation committed to compassionate righteousness and moral justice.

But Yitro does much more than design a more manageable judicial system; he actually defines Moses’ position as leader, setting the stage for the Hebraic version of Plato’s philosopher king. Moses understood the paramount importance of the law for the development of the people. He also understood that since God had chosen him as the lawgiver, each Israelite experienced personal contact with him as if it were contact with God. Moses was willing to stand from morning to night adjudicating individual cases because he realized that each client was actually “seeking God” [Ex. 18:15].

Yitro understands that such a situation cannot last. He therefore, explains to his son-in-law that he does not have the luxury of leading like a rebbe who deals with each individual and their problems. Instead, he must lead like a rav — an exalted teacher who brings the Divine Word to the nation as a whole, and serves as its interlocutor and defense attorney before God.

Moses must speak with the voice of the Divine, and his mouth must express the words and will of the Divine; “clarify the decrees and the laws for [the nation] and show them the path they must take and the things they must do” [Ex. 18:19-20]. He must be Moshe Rabbenu, a halachic teacher, guide and king who operates wholesale rather than retail; a rav and Torah teacher for all generations, rather than a rebbe for the individuals of one generation. Such a vocation would make Moses a man of God (Ish Ha-Elohim) rather than a man of the people. It might lead to more criticism, and even to impudent and ungrateful rebellions, but it would allow him more time with God and enable his intellect to fuse with the “Intellect of the Divine” [Maimonides, “Guide for the Perplexed”].

There was one detail in which Moses differed from Yitro. The Midianite priest suggested that all the big matters be brought to Moses, and all small matters be judged by lesser courts [Ex. 18:22]. Moses re-interpreted his words to state that the difficult issues be brought to him whereas the simpler cases be judged by the magistrates.

Moses taught that the highest court was needed for the difficult questions of Law, but not necessarily for simpler cases such as material claims and disputes. As Moses initially explained to God, he was a man of weighty, theological and religio-legal speech rather than someone given to small talk.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.