Trump Fascist Part V: Reason and Empiricism – The Art of the Deal

Trump Fascist Part V: Reason and Empiricism – The Art of the Deal

by

Howard Adelman

The third key philosophical premise that characterizes Donald Trump is his contempt for both reason and empirical truth. It is an indicator of fascism – again not a sufficient condition for labeling a fascist, but a necessary one. I will offer an alternative example of an argument that uses neither reason nor a reference to empirical fact to support a decision, but the conversation does not reveal or suggest fascism. I outlined the character of DT ignoring the use of reason and empiricism in my previous blog. Neither objectivity nor rational discourse is a measure for what is real. Reality is created by the spirit of a powerful personality who lays down his vision for the world.

This morning I will explore the implications of this proposition and its negative effects by analyzing the debate between Moses and God on Moses’ plea to be allowed entry into the promised land that is contained in this week’s parshat, parashat va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11). I will compare it to the arguments that Trump presented to both the President of Mexico and to the Prime Minister of Australia in his conversations with each one in turn.

 It should be recalled that this shabat is referred to as “Shabbat Nachamu,” (my wife’s Hebrew name is Nechama), the sabbath of comfort or solace. We may also ask what comfort the words of Moses and God bring? Compare it to the continuing discomfort resulting from Donald Trump’s words and actions.

 Usually, or, at least, very often, commentators on this parshat focus on the rule of law as discussed in the version of the Ten Commandments put forth in Deuteronomy as distinct from previous iterations. Or they choose the Shema, the declaration of the oneness of God for further discussion and analysis. They may take apart Moses’ narrative of the whole Exodus story and compare it to earlier iterations.

I choose to focus on the issue of entry into the land and the debate between God and Moses asking what rationalism and empiricism, the use of logic and the reference to the real world to falsify and confirm beliefs, have to do with that debate. The argument between God and Moses will be the source of the revelation.

The opening of parashat va’etchanan read this shabat begins with Moses pleading to be allowed to enter the promised land. Now Moses was not and never had been a narcissistic Alpha Male. His first concern had always been the security and survival of his people, not his own, a commitment that went back to his striking of the Egyptian guard and then being forced to flee Egypt and his life of privilege. He initially also always insisted that he was undeserving of the task of leading his people. Based on his own self-knowledge, Moses recognized that he was not an Alpha Male and seemed ill-equipped to lead his people given the Egyptian example. He was not even able to deliver a coherent speech.

Further, while developing great skills as a practitioner of the magic arts, he remained both the ultimate realist and rationalist. On the latter, it was he who accepted the advice of his non-Israeli father-in-law to decentralize the political leadership and judicial system based on Jethro’s reasoning, even though there was no evidence yet available that a decentralized system was more effective than a centralized one. Jethro’s experience counted, no matter the non-Israelite source. It was he who recognized after the spies returned from Canaan that the issue was not the fearsome might of the peoples there and the strength of the walls around their cities, but the will to win among his own.

A very different Moses emerges at the end of his life in complete contrast to the beginning. This text of Deuteronomy begins as follows:

Deuteronomy 3:23-3:28

Do not fear them, for it is the LORD your God who will battle for you.”

23

וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְהוָ֑ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃I pleaded with the LORD at that time, saying,

24

אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֗ה אַתָּ֤ה הַֽחִלּ֙וֹתָ֙ לְהַרְא֣וֹת אֶֽת־עַבְדְּךָ֔ אֶ֨ת־גָּדְלְךָ֔ וְאֶת־יָדְךָ֖ הַחֲזָקָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר מִי־אֵל֙ בַּשָּׁמַ֣יִם וּבָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה כְמַעֲשֶׂ֖יךָ וְכִגְבוּרֹתֶֽךָ׃“O Lord GOD, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!

25

אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּ֗א וְאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן הָהָ֥ר הַטּ֛וֹב הַזֶּ֖ה וְהַלְּבָנֽוֹן׃Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.”

26

וַיִּתְעַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה בִּי֙ לְמַ֣עַנְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֵלָ֑י וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֤ה אֵלַי֙ רַב־לָ֔ךְ אַל־תּ֗וֹסֶף דַּבֵּ֥ר אֵלַ֛י ע֖וֹד בַּדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃But the LORD was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The LORD said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!

27

עֲלֵ֣ה ׀ רֹ֣אשׁ הַפִּסְגָּ֗ה וְשָׂ֥א עֵינֶ֛יךָ יָ֧מָּה וְצָפֹ֛נָה וְתֵימָ֥נָה וּמִזְרָ֖חָה וּרְאֵ֣ה בְעֵינֶ֑יךָ כִּי־לֹ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֥ן הַזֶּֽה׃Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.

28

וְצַ֥ו אֶת־יְהוֹשֻׁ֖עַ וְחַזְּקֵ֣הוּ וְאַמְּצֵ֑הוּ כִּי־ה֣וּא יַעֲבֹ֗ר לִפְנֵי֙ הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְהוּא֙ יַנְחִ֣יל אוֹתָ֔ם אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּרְאֶֽה׃Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage, for he shall go across at the head of this people, and he shall allot to them the land that you may only see.”

Moses could have offered many arguments to God on why he should be permitted to enter the promised land. He deserved such a reward after all his labours and sacrifices. Refusing to allow his entry was unjust and disproportionate if the reason for that refusal was his failure to invoke God when he struck the rock with his rod to bring forth water in the exodus across the Sinai. Even if you add to that all his other failures of commission and omission as a leader of his people, denying him the right to enter the land appears to be an extraordinary punishment totally out of proportion to any accumulation of his small sins.

Moses could have insisted that his people needed him. At that moment, it was highly risky to change leaders just when the real confrontation with the enemies of the tribes of Israel was about to begin. As the mediator between the people’s trust in God, he could have argued that he was indispensable. Moses could have insisted that since he had kept his part of the bargain, God should keep His and allow his entry. Finally, with the conquest of Sihon and Og and the settling of one-and-a-half tribes on the east side of the Jordan, Moses could have argued that the Israelites were already in the Promised Land. They were already in Canaan for the defeated peoples were Canaanites.

However, Moses offered none of these arguments or others he could have used. Moses does not try to reason with God nor offer evidence for God acceding to his request. Instead, he “entreated” (וָאֶתְחַנַּן) God to allow his entry. As Rashi wrote, “חִנּוּן [and its derivatives] in all cases is an expression signifying [requesting] a free gift. Even though the righteous may base a request on the merit of their good deeds, they request only a free gift of the Omnipresent.”

Moses also appears to flatter God. With God’s greatness and his mighty hand that no god in heaven or on earth can equal, it was totally within God’s power to grant such a request. Are the remarks of Moses similar to Donald Trump’s pleas, first to Mexican President ­Enrique Peña Nieto, not to talk publicly about Mexico not paying for the wall because that was politically embarrassing to DT given that he had run and won on such a platform? Are the remarks of Moses akin to DT’s discussion with Prime Minister Turnbull of Australia? After all, with both DT alternated disparagement with flattery.

The context of the first conversation was DT signing an executive order to begin construction of the wall on the Mexican border without any agreement that Mexico would pay for it and Nieto cancelling his trip to Washington when DT kept insisting that Mexico pay for the wall. Threats by DT were injected – tariffs, restrictions on imports and refusal to meet with the Mexicans in the future if they failed to accede to his request. There were also promises, but insulting ones – we will send our boys to help fight the tough hombres. Whereas Nieto made his requests in terms of the mutual interests of both countries, DT’s emphasis kept returning to the effects on his image.

DT’s other reference was to his great election victory – “the large percentage of Hispanic voters” and 84% of the Cuban-American vote – both lies – and that “no one got people in their rallies as big as I did” – 25,000 to 50,000. DT also used insincere flattery of Nieto as “smarter” and “more cunning” combined with insults. “You have not done a good job of knocking them [the drug dealers] out.”

Finally, there is the insistence of DT’s absolute authority to impose taxes and tariffs on Mexican goods coming into the USA independent of any vote in Congress – another lie. “I am sort of in this bad position because the deal that they are making is not nearly as good as the deal I could impose tomorrow – in fact this afternoon. I do not have to go back to Congress or to the Senate. I do not need the vote of 400 people. I have the powers to do all of this.”

The conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was much testier. DT insisted that the Australian PM break the agreement that the US had made to take in 2,000 asylum seekers on humanitarian grounds that had been interned in islands off Australia since the deal was so antithetical to the platform on which DT had run. “The deal will make me look terrible.” “This is going to kill me;” “that will make us look awfully bad;” “I look like a dope.” The references and arguments are all addressed to his own image and not the best interest of America or the mutual interests of both parties, let alone a set of higher ethical and political ideals. Instead, DT insists the deal is stupid and hangs up on Turnbull.

Contrast these conversations with the one Moses had with God. First, Moses entreated God. He granted right from the start that it was within God’s absolute power to grant such a request. His reference to God’s omnipresence should be viewed in this context, not as flattery, but as a sincere recognition that if a deal is to be made, the other, but especially God, has the right and power to decide on what He will do.  With all his flattery and insults in dealing with other leaders of countries in the free world, DT never grants such an acknowledgement, but veers between putting the other down and self-aggrandizement as he boasts about his own powers.

There is also a contrast between the substance of the requests. Moses asks to be allowed to cross over and at least see the land on the other side of the Jordan, and, as a tack on, Lebanon. DT asks to keep migrants and drug dealers at home in Mexico and to keep the manufactured goods flowing so freely across the border at home. DT asks Turnbull to keep the refugees. Moses asks to keep the border open for him to cross. DT asks to close borders lest the image of himself that he has created and projected be damaged. The first constitutes religious respect. The latter is out-and-out self-idolatry, in this case, when one envisions oneself as the idol.

Does God respond to Moses with reason? Not at all. He just says, Shut up! Nor does God offer any empirical evidence for his decision – such as, given the strength and position of their enemies, why Joshua is now more fit to lead the Israelites. God just delivers the decision from on high. Don’t bring up the issue again. But there is a twist. God offers Moses compensation. He throws a bone. Moses will be allowed to see the land but not enter it. In return, Moses will pass the role of leader formally to Joshua so the leadership transition will go smoothly. Moses was instructed to pass on to Joshua his gifts of strength and courage.

And Moses accepts. That is the art of the deal when the object is not the protection of one’s own image, not narcissistic idolatry, but the primacy of service to the nation. All three examples of efforts to change the mind of another (1 by Moses and 2 by DT) begin with a sense of deep disappointment. All ask for a change of mind. But Moses is other-directed – towards God and towards his people. Donald Trump, while claiming to express the interests of Americans and to be the voice of his followers, is clearly almost exclusively interested in boosting and boasting about his own image. None of his arguments are sincere and some are outright lies.

Not all arguments and pleadings are settled by reason and a reference to facts. In the Moses example, this was definitely not the case. But in such instances, the use of a plea rather than a threat, the recognition of the other rather than the focus on the self, the willingness to accept a half measures instead of bullying to get what one wants even if one only wants half the pie in the first place, offer guidelines for the art of the deal, practices that DT seems to totally lack.

It is also an acceptance of one’s mortality as well as the acceptance that one fulfills one’s mission in life, not by accomplishing the goals set out, but by doing one’s best to advance those goals. There are consolation prizes in life and these are sufficient. There is no need to aspire towards immortality. But that is a message that will have to be saved for another blog.

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Politics and the Administration of Justice

Politics and the Administration of Justice: Yitro: Exodus 18:1 – 20:23

by

Howard Adelman

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.

17. Moses’ father in law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not good. יזוַיֹּ֛אמֶר חֹתֵ֥ן משֶׁ֖ה אֵלָ֑יו לֹא־טוֹב֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתָּ֖ה עֹשֶֽׂה:
18. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. יחנָבֹ֣ל תִּבֹּ֔ל גַּם־אַתָּ֕ה גַּם־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמָּ֑ךְ כִּֽי־כָבֵ֤ד מִמְּךָ֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר לֹֽא־תוּכַ֥ל עֲשׂ֖הוּ לְבַדֶּֽךָ:
19. Now listen to me. I will advise you, and may the Lord be with you. [You] represent the people before God, and you shall bring the matters to God. יטעַתָּ֞ה שְׁמַ֤ע בְּקֹלִי֙ אִיעָ֣צְךָ֔ וִיהִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים עִמָּ֑ךְ הֱיֵ֧ה אַתָּ֣ה לָעָ֗ם מ֚וּל הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים וְהֵֽבֵאתָ֥ אַתָּ֛ה אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים אֶל־הָֽאֱלֹהִֽים:
20. And you shall admonish them concerning the statutes and the teachings, and you shall make known to them the way they shall go and the deed[s] they shall do. כוְהִזְהַרְתָּ֣ה אֶתְהֶ֔ם אֶת־הַֽחֻקִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַתּוֹרֹ֑ת וְהֽוֹדַעְתָּ֣ לָהֶ֗ם אֶת־הַדֶּ֨רֶךְ֙ יֵ֣לְכוּ בָ֔הּ וְאֶת־הַמַּֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַֽעֲשֽׂוּן:
21. But you shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, God fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens. כאוְאַתָּ֣ה תֶֽחֱזֶ֣ה מִכָּל־הָ֠עָ֠ם אַנְשֵׁי־חַ֜יִל יִרְאֵ֧י אֱלֹהִ֛ים אַנְשֵׁ֥י אֱמֶ֖ת שׂ֣נְאֵי בָ֑צַע וְשַׂמְתָּ֣ עֲלֵהֶ֗ם שָׂרֵ֤י אֲלָפִים֙ שָׂרֵ֣י מֵא֔וֹת שָׂרֵ֥י חֲמִשִּׁ֖ים וְשָׂרֵ֥י עֲשָׂרֹֽת

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

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