Politics and the Administration of Justice: Yitro: Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
My commentary is restricted to Chapter 18.
The Israelites, or, at least Moses, had been taught the basics of diplomacy and how to deal with an irrational and vengeful tyrant. The Israelites were then taught some core lessons in the art of war. Diplomacy and military skills may be necessary for a people to be secure. But the key will be politics, the ability of a people to govern themselves.
“But I thought that the Israelites were governed by God!” That is a misconception. Parshat Yitro illustrates that this conception is erroneous. The Israelites had fought and won a glorious and impossible victory. Last shabat was shabat shira, the shabat of song and rejoicing when Miriam with song and timbrel against the backdrop of the sea led the Israelites and danced and sang the night away. The God of tradition, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the god of diplomacy and wrath who subsequently revealed Himself as a warrior God, a God of war, has now made room for pleasure and joy, for happiness and delight. God talks but He does not sing. It is we who sing in praise of God – and other things. Does God now reveal Himself to His people, to all his people, as a god who can teach the people the arts of government and not just the arts of war?
Water was scarce. The principles of change had been transformed into the principles of security and resistance against change. Food too had been scarce. Neither the earth nor the heavens opened up to feed the people. Their souls were starving even more than their bodies. Little did they know that the exhilaration of victory would be followed by the long and dark tunnel of struggle, of resentment. Appreciation for what they had and for what they had accomplished had been replaced by resentment and self-pity. The water they drank had become bitter.
The water is made sweet. The heavens and the earth yield, if not their bounty, sufficient amounts to survive. And the military tradition becomes professionalized as Joshua defeats Amalek, with Aaron and Hur each holding one arm of Moses on the hill overseeing the battle.
Against this backdrop, Jethro (Yitro), Moses’ father-in-law, appears on the scene to reunite Moses with his wife, Zipporah, and his two sons, Gershom (stranger in a foreign land) and Eliezer (God is my help). Moses will have to introduce his people to a land that will not be foreign, but will be their own land. Moses will also have to help his people learn self-reliance and not be so dependent on God’s help and assistance. But Moses, himself, in keeping his family safe while everyone else risked their own families, demonstrated that he was not fully of the people. The other Israelites had their families, their wives and children with them. Further, Moses himself was still far too reliant on God.
Why were Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer left in the safety of the home of Jethro while Moses took on the Egyptians in an epic diplomatic and military battle? The question is not only not answered, it is not even asked. Instead, Moses updated his father-in-law, not an Israelite but a Midianite priest. The next day, Jethro watched Moses serve as the magistrate of his people resolving disputes among them.
The scene reminded me of one when I was first introduced to Arafat. We were in Gaza. It was about 10:00 p.m. in the evening. We were ushered into a large room with chairs all around the perimeter of the room. There were perhaps 16-18 people occupying those chairs. Recall, it was 10:00 p.m. in the evening. We were escorted past those waiting supplicants into a smaller reception area where four others were waiting. We did not sit but stood. Soon, two individuals emerged from another adjacent room. One brushed past us and the other invited us to follow him in.
Arafat came out from behind his desk, grasped each of our hands with both of his and greeted us warmly. We were individually introduced, all four of us, and Arafat nodded at the introduction. There was no translation into Arabic and it was not clear to me whether Arafat followed the introductions. Pleasantries were exchanged and then we were invited by our escort to follow him out of the room, but not before there was some more grasping of hands and smiling nods.
When we left and were once again outside, I asked the leader of our group, a very experienced diplomat, what that was all about. He said it was a courtesy introduction before we could continue our discussions in Gaza. My question, however, was not about the perfunctory introduction, since it was clear that it had just been a formality. I wanted to know what Arafat was doing seeing people in the late evening with twenty or so waiting to talk to him.
I was told that this is what Arafat did and often until three in the morning. He saw Palestinians who wanted a favour, a disposition, an intervention in a domestic or business dispute, or on any other matter under the sun. It might be a request to adjudicate a dispute with a next door neighbour over a fence line. Arafat had never been educated by Jethro. He lacked a father-in-law to serve as a mentor. Arafat was performing as Moses did before Jethro arrived on the scene in Sinai.
|13. It came about on the next day that Moses sat down to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening.||יגוַֽיְהִי֙ מִמָּ֣חֳרָ֔ת וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב משֶׁ֖ה לִשְׁפֹּ֣ט אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיַּֽעֲמֹ֤ד הָעָם֙ עַל־משֶׁ֔ה מִן־הַבֹּ֖קֶר עַד־הָעָֽרֶ|
Unlike the Palestinians in Gaza waiting to see Arafat who had seats, the Israelites waiting to see Moses had to stand for hours.
|14. When Moses’ father in law saw what he was doing to the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening?”||ידוַיַּרְא֙ חֹתֵ֣ן משֶׁ֔ה אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֖ה לָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֗אמֶר מָֽה־הַדָּבָ֤ר הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֤ה עֹשֶׂה֙ לָעָ֔ם מַדּ֗וּעַ אַתָּ֤ה יוֹשֵׁב֙ לְבַדֶּ֔ךָ וְכָל־הָעָ֛ם נִצָּ֥ב עָלֶ֖יךָ מִן־בֹּ֥קֶר עַד־עָֽרֶב:|
Jethro remonstrated Moses. Moses had made the Israelites stand for a long time and did not respect the dignity he owed each of his people. He was akin to the physician who has all his patients come early and accumulate lest the doctor lose time waiting. For hours, the Israelites stood while he, Moses, sat. Secondly, Moses handled all the adjudication personally. Moses replied to Jethro in a defensive way. “I did not ask them to come. They sought me out. Secondly, they came to see me not just to seek a resolution of a relatively petty problem, but to seek God’s ruling on such matters. They come to seek God. In other words, as God’s stand-in, I, Moses, am only a conduit for God’s word.” We are presented with a case of government which is neither responsible nor responsive, neither representative nor respectful,
|15Moses said to his father in law, “For the people come to me to seek God.||טווַיֹּ֥אמֶר משֶׁ֖ה לְחֹֽתְנ֑וֹ כִּֽי־יָבֹ֥א אֵלַ֛י הָעָ֖ם לִדְר֥שׁ אֱלֹהִֽים:|
As far as Jethro was concerned, that was no answer at all. For at least two consequentialist reasons. The process would wear out Moses and would also make the people weary – all that waiting, and in terrible circumstances just at a time when they needed relief, not a further weighty burden.
Simply put – delegate. Give the lesser matters to others and only involve yourself in the very major disputes. Note, there is no separation of powers between executive and judicial functions. The judiciary are still named and appointed by Moses and are only permitted to rule on relatively minor matters. Further, they also serve as political leaders to apply the laws handed down from Moses.
But they are chosen based on their rectitude, their unconcern with using their positions to advance their monetary interests for they are already men of substance, men of chayil (חַ֜֜יִל) in the material sense and in a sense that they carry with them gravitas. For chayil refers not only to wealth, but to strength of character, a man of moral worth, hence, a man of substance. They are serious men. They must also be both honest and God-fearing in order to carry out their responsibilities. It is as if they put their property in a blind trust. After all, the Talmud, as Rashi cites it, says, “Any judge from whom money is exacted through litigation is not [fit to be] a judge.” [based on Mechilta and B.B. 58b] They must use their positions only to judge honestly and impartially.
This is not a lesson in self-government. It is still a top-down system. There is still no differentiation between the executive branch, the judicial branch and the legislative arms of government. God legislates. Moses serves as the magistrate and organizes the implementation of both the legislative and judicial functions.
The second lesson offers the criteria for choosing leaders who are also judicial officers. They must be men of wealth. They must be honest men whose gains are not ill-gotten. They must be trustworthy that they will implement what they decide. They must also be God-fearing.
There is a third lesson hidden among all the other recommendations. It is a statement in verse 19. “You represent the people before God.” Moses has his position, not as the undisputed leader of or over the Israelites, but as the representative of the Israelites before God. His primary job is not top-down, even though he performs that function; it is bottom-up – to represent the people. Thus, we get the first glimmerings of democracy as well as the first steps towards efficient government and the requirement that the men who make up that government be chosen on the basis of a very lofty set of values.
Note the following. The values are eternal and unchanging and are delivered from on high, from above. The lesson about efficiency comes from the side, from a foreigner. Though he came to respect the power of the Israeli god, there is nothing said about his conversion as Rashi implied. The Israelites had to remain open to others, non-Israelite lights.
If authority in values come from above, ideas on how to organize the system of authority came from the outside and by means of a non-Israelite agent. The Israelis had to remain open to outside influences. Third, interests flowed from below and Moses’ prime job was to represent the people as a whole to God. Not special interests. But everyone’s interests. The nation’s interest.
We now have the basic skeleton for a polity.
With the help of Alex Zisman