The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Yitro, Exodus 18:1-20:23
Courts of Law

by Avraham ben Yaakov

It is testimony to the universality of the Torah that the very portion which describes the election of Israel as God's "kingdom of priests" through the Covenant at Sinai is named after the world's greatest high-priest of idolatry, Yitro - Jethro - who on hearing of God's miracles for Israel and the justice He brought upon Egypt, became a convert to the Torah of HaShem.

And lest the convert imagine that as one who has entered Israel from the outside, he could never be fully accepted into the fold, our portion shows that "Yitro added a section to the Torah" (Midrash Mekhilta) - for it was upon his suggestion that the Israelite system of leadership and justice was instituted. Moses' prophecy would always be the ultimate source of authority, but the burden of leadership would be shared and delegated to successive ranks of leaders, judges and magistrates (Exodus 18:13-26).

An important interpretational rule used by the Torah sages is that "there is no before and after in the Torah". What this means is that although the Biblical stories appear to be arranged in a chronological sequence, there are sections where something that actually occurred at a later point in time is told at an earlier point in the text on account of its thematic relationship with the adjacent passages. A case in point is this very section dealing with the judiciary, which immediately follows the account of Jethro's arrival in the wilderness to search for the truth, as narrated in Exodus 18:1-12.

"And it was on the day afterwards that Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from the morning to the evening..." (Exodus 18:13).

From a casual glance at the text it might seem as if "the day afterwards" was the day after Jethro's arrival in the wilderness, as described in the previous verses. However, the Torah sages demonstrated that Jethro's advice about appointing judges could only have been offered at some date after the Giving of the Torah, even though the latter is described at a later point in the text in chapters 19-20. The reason is that in the section on the judiciary (chapter 18 verse 16), Moses refers to "God's statutes and teachings" which he had to teach the people, and these were given only at Sinai (see Rashi on Exodus 18:1).

Jethro watched the throngs of people pressing in on Moses to ask how the Torah code applied in practice to each one's personal issues. With the fresh, clear vision of an "outsider", Jethro immediately grasped that the crushing burden of communal responsibility would quickly wear out Moses unless - with God's consent - he would choose fitting leaders to whom to delegate his authority.

"You must caution them about the statues and the teachings and make known to them the path they must follow and the actions they must take. And you look out from all the people for men of valor who fear God, men of truth who hate corrupt gain, and appoint them as captains of thousands, captains of hundreds, captains of fifties and captains of tens. And they shall judge the people at all times and all major matters they shall bring to you and every small thing they shall adjudicate..." (Ex. 18, 20-22).

Despite the fact that, as explained above, chronologically Jethro's proposal could only have been made after the Giving of the Torah, its thematic importance is so great that in the Torah text it is positioned before and as an introduction to the account of the Giving of the Torah. This is because a duly constituted judiciary composed of men of integrity is the very foundation for the establishment of a viable universal Torah code that will bring genuine peace among all people.

There is a natural tendency for people to be refractory, and a system of law can only rein in their baser aspects with efficient policing and a fair, swift, scrupulous judiciary.

The institution of courts of law and justice is the seventh of the Noahide Commandments. It was given to Jethro - a Noahide and a former explorer of all the different human pathways to the divine - to introduce the concept of a hierarchical system of judges of integrity into the Torah code. Perhaps this great merit was given to Jethro because in all he heard about God's overthrow of Egypt - the greatest superpower of his era - he recognized that the true greatness of HaShem above all other powers was revealed through His justice: "Now I know that HaShem is great above all the gods for [He dealt with the Egyptians] through the very thing with which they schemed against them" [i.e. against the Israelites, namely through water, in which the Egyptians sought to drown the Israelite babies. So did He deal with the Egyptians, measure for measure, drowning them in the sea]" (Ex. 18:11 as explained by the Targum).

In verse 21, Jethro succinctly summarizes the three essential qualities that people must have in order to qualify to serve as judges over others. Firstly, they must be "God-fearing" - that is to say, they must fear to do any wrong even when no human can see them, because they know that God's all-seeing eye takes in everything and He eventually brings everyone to justice. Secondly, they must be "men of truth" - they must earnestly seek out the real truth of each matter and not content themselves with superficial appearances and circumstantial evidence. Thirdly, they must be people that "hate corrupt gain".

This has the greatest relevance in our times, when some of the most "advanced" blocs and countries in the world (such as the European Union and Great Britain) have been rocked with scandals involving the embezzlement of enormous sums from tax-payers' pockets through false expenses claims by their very legislators and members of parliament. There is also much evidence that prominent members of the governments, judiciaries and police forces of such countries permit extraneous interests to influence their decisions, with preferential treatment being accorded to some and commissions of enquiry that cover up much more than they expose.

Where corrupt vested interests are deeply entrenched, it takes great courage to protest. The Torah itself is an eternal protest against the corruption of leaders and judges.




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