The Structure of the State: Parshat Yitro/Jethro Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

The Structure of the State: Parshat Yitro/Jethro Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

by

Howard Adelman

Last week I wrote about political leadership from the perspective of the Torah. This week my subject is the distribution of the various powers of the state dedicated to protecting and serving a nation beginning with the role of foreign affairs and international diplomacy. How should political leaders deal with political leaders from other states? For Jethro is not only Moses’ father-in-law; he is also the high priest of the Midianites. How does a foreign religious leader also emerge as a confidant and critical advisor of Moses in the design of the polity for the Israelites? How and why did a foreign personality presume to do so? Was it simply because he was “family,” that he was mishpacha?

This week’s parsha is not only about Jethro. That is the subject of chapter 18. But chapter 19 is about the Israelites camping in front of Mount Sinai and their encounter with God. Chapter 20 is about Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and Moses’ role to serve as an intermediary between the people and God and, therefore, the defender of the constitution, the basic covenant for a nation. What do these events that follow and historically rival the escape from Egypt have to do with Jethro coming to Sinai with Moses’ wife and two children to meet with Moses and subsequently offer his political advice?

As stated above, Jethro was a Midianite priest. He may also have been a Prince of the Midianites, for he is called a Midian leader in some translations, but given the difficulties and indignities his daughters suffered at the hands of other shepherds at the well where Moses met his future wife, I very much doubt it. But prince or priest, whether he combined the office of political leader as well as religious leader is not the issue for me, for it is his religious leadership that is important.

Recall what Aaron’s role was as High Priest when there was no temple. Aaron’s initial job was to be the intermediary between God and Pharaoh. When Moses demurred from accepting his divine assignment to represent the Israelites in the negotiations with Pharaoh to free the Israelites from Egypt, Aaron was appointed as God’s spokesman. Aaron was made Secretary of State. Aaron had the job of being a light unto the nation with the most symbolic job assigned to a High Priest, lighting the candles on the menorah so that Israel could be the light to other nations, whether in dealing with enemies in pursuit or nations the Israelites would face in front of them. If Moses was the political leader of the Israelites, Aaron, his older brother by three years, was appointed as foreign minister, or, as designated in the United States of America, Secretary of State. It was Aaron who had the job of guiding the ship of state in foreign waters (and in foreign lands). Thus, when we encounter Jethro here and he is called a Midianite priest, we recognize his role as the nation’s chief diplomat.

We know that Moses worked for his father-in-law after he married Zipporah for almost a decade and during that time presented him with two grandsons, Gershom (stranger) and Eliezer (God’s helper). Their names are ironic because it is Jethro who will come as a stranger to the Israelites at Sinai and will serve as God’s helper by being Moses’ helper, not simply, as it is said, because he gave Moses a refuge from the sword of Pharaoh, but in allowing Moses to emerge subsequently as a person worthy of being the intermediary between God and the people of Israel.

When Jethro as a courtesy sent a message that he was arriving at the Israelite camp with Moses’ wife and two sons, Moses himself, not just Aaron, went out of the camp to greet him, bowed down to him in respect and kissed him. The first lesson in statesmanship is that when a foreign minister visits, it is the political head of state who should greet him. Further, not just the leader, but the ambassador from another nation must be welcomed, not as a supplicant, but as one worthy of both love and respect.

Jethro and Moses then returned to Moses’ tent where Moses told his father-in-law everything that had taken place since he left the land of the Midianites on the Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba. He did not tell the story of what he did, but of what God did to Pharaoh as the enemy and how God subsequently saved the Israelites from the hardships they encountered in the desert. In other words, Moses did not raise himself up through what happened, but offered Jethro a detached portrait of the political landscape for which God (or history) was responsible. Jethro responded by summarizing the tale and concluding, “I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.”

Arrogance has been considered one of the seven of the worst character defects. Egyptian pharaohs were the epitome of arrogance for they considered themselves to be above other mortals, to be embodied gods. Arrogance is a denial of personal vulnerability. The corollary of raising oneself on a pedestal entails treating others as only worthy of contempt. Pharaoh was overbearing and overestimated his power to an undue degree. Jethro contends that the real and most basic reason God treated Pharaoh so badly was that he was a conceited, self-important prig with a false sense of his own enormous grandiosity.

Contrast those characteristics with those belonging to Moses or Jethro, but our focus here must be on Jethro. First of all, instead of parading his own idolatrous gods as greater than the Israelite god and engaging in a macho contest, Jethro praised YHWH as “greater than all the gods.” He behaved in precisely the opposite way than Pharaoh. In doing so, Jethro did not renounce his idolatrous religion; he merely recognized the God of Israel as the greatest among the gods. Jethro was not a believer in monotheism. Nor is there any suggestion he had himself circumcised and converted to Judaism as suggested by some interpreters.

[Some Talmudists claim that when the text says wa-yihad Yitro (Exodus 18.9), translated as “Jethro rejoiced,” this meant that Jethro self-circumcised, that he felt a stinging in his flesh and when you exchange the ח with a ה to be wa-yihad, then the meaning is that Jethro became a Jew. I think this is farfetched and does not at all fit in with the thrust as well as the details of the story.]

Note also that Jethro paid no attention to the part of the story when God saved the Israelites in the desert and provided water and manna. It was not God as a material provider that interested him. He came as a foreign minister, not as an economic minister focused on material things. His concern was authority and power and how it was to be exercised. Jethro said that God was greater than all the other gods because he protected His people and punished those who would treat them “arrogantly.” That is the function of statesmanship. Jethro then made a sacrifice, brought a burnt offering and joined Moses, Aaron and the elders of Israel in a festive meal. What Jethro did was also a diplomatic reproach to Moses and Aaron, as well as the 600,000 Israelites because, until Jethro arrived and performed his sacrifice, none of the Israelites had deemed recognizing the power of the Other as important.

The next day Jethro observed Moses acting as a judge and welfare officer when his people came to him with requests and the need to resolve disputes. That part of the story reminded me when I was first introduced to Yasser Arafat in Gaza. (He had not yet moved to Ramallah.) It was 9:30 or 10:00 p.m., which I thought was quite late for a political meeting. We were ushered into a very large room with chairs all around the sides. I was totally shocked to see about half the chairs filled. My memory may be exaggerating, but I thought there were twenty-five people waiting. We were told they were waiting to see Arafat. We were then ushered into an anteroom. There were four people waiting there. We were taken past them right into Arafat’s office.

The office was plain and unadorned. We were introduced, but the meeting was perfunctory – evidently just a matter of form. When we left, I asked the person who was our intermediary what all those people were doing so late in the evening waiting to see Arafat. He informed us that it is the same every evening and seven days a week. People go to Arafat to complain about a neighbour’s dog barking (that literally was one of his examples), to ask for funds to bury a relative or help a child get medical help. Arafat dispenses money, rulings and advice sometimes until three in the morning. That is what Jethro saw Moses doing.

13 The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. 14 When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?”

15 Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will.16 Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”

17 Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. 19 Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. 20 Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. 21 But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. 23 If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”

24 Moses listened to his father-in-law and did everything he said. 25 He chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 26 They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves.

27 Then Moses sent his father-in-law on his way, and Jethro returned to his own country.

If the function of a foreign minister or secretary of state is to represent his nation so that it can be a light unto other nations when dealing with them (not just representing a nation’s interests in Kissinger’s terms of realpolitik), the function of a political leader is to represent his nation in dealing with God, in dealing with history, in dealing with a nation’s destiny, in interpreting its fundamental constitution. The chief political officer is neither the chief law maker nor the judiciary. After separating the functions of statesmanship and diplomacy from being the head of a nation, the judicial functions too must be delegated to others. Thus, we have a different take on the separation of powers – foreign affairs from leader of the state, leader of the state from chief judicial officer. The next lesson will be about the making of laws, but that comes after Jethro leaves.

How did Jethro then prepare for what took place afterward? First, it was Jethro who told Moses that his job was to be an intermediary between his people and God. Second, as we soon learn, Moses is not the prince of his people, is not the lawmaker, but only the receiver of the fundamental constitution for the people, the covenant with God, which is a constitutional set of rules recommended for all nations. Third, Jethro had to go away because the people had to learn two other lessons that could not come from Jethro. For Jethro was an idolater; the Israelites were commanded to put away the worship of all idols.

“You shall not make [images of anything that is] with Me. Gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves.” (Exodus 20:20) This was the culmination of all the commandments the Lord gave to Moses and was a repetition of verse 4: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth.” The Israelites were not forbidden from making images, but graven images, objects or things worshipped as divine. “Graven” is the right adjective. Don’t make what is dead and treat it in a solemn way.

There was a second reason Jethro had to leave. He came from a hierarchical society. In contrast, God wanted to teach the Israelites obedience to the constitution, the covenant intended to guide all peoples. “And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth.” (Exodus 19:5) But for the Israelites to be a truly holy nation, they had to be a nation of self-legislators, a nation in which every member was a prince, a democratic nation. “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6)

Jethro could not teach Moses or his people not to be idolaters, nor that the nation must become one in which all were princes, a democratic nation. Thus, in this parsha, we are provided with the framework for the construction of a state that will serve the nation. Separate foreign affairs and diplomacy from the functions of internal rule and make certain attributes characteristic of that role. Secondly, separate executive power from the judiciary. Thirdly, create a constitutional “monarchy,” that is where the function of the head of state was to be bound to upholding the fundamental covenant or the constitution of that state from the exercise of power and make the head of state the embodiment of that covenant and the representative of that covenant to the people. Fourth, make the state a democratic state whereby the powers of making laws, within the boundaries of the constitution or the fundamental covenant of that state, are made by the people who shall all be treated as princes of the state.

With the help of Alex Zisman

SUNDAY: Foreign Affairs, Diplomacy and the Body Politic

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