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Torah Sparks

January 26, 2008 – 19 Shevat 5768

Annual: Ex. 18:1 – 20:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 432; Hertz p. 288)
Triennial: Ex. 18:1 – 18:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 432; Hertz p. 288)
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6:9:5-6 (Etz Hayim, p. 452; Hertz p. 302)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro (Yitro), hears about the Exodus and what God has done for the Israelites and comes to visit his son-in-law, bringing Moses’ wife Zipporah and their sons. Jethro acknowledges God’s greatness and offers a sacrifice. The next day, Jethro sees Moses spending hours and hours answering the people’s questions and settling their disputes. He advises Moses to choose officers and judges to assist in these efforts. Jethro then returns to his home.

At the beginning of the third month after the Exodus, God tells Moses to instruct the people to prepare to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. On the appointed day, amid thunder and lightning, thick clouds, and the sound of a shofar, God speaks. The Ten Statements (Commandments) are given. The people are overwhelmed and terrified by God’s power and they ask Moses to serve as intermediary between God and the Israelites. Moses ascends the mountain and disappears into the clouds. God instructs Moses about the prohibition against idols and about the proper construction of the altar.

Justice Delayed, Justice Denied

But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Exodus 18:17-18)

  1. What is this thing you are doing to the people? (18:13) This was a hard thing he did to them, for their cases would wait all day, and sometimes they never did come before Moses because they were so many others. You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. This refers to exhaustion. You cannot carry the burden and these people cannot endure it, for they stand all day waiting for their judgment. And some explain that you will surely wear yourself out refers to confusion, for you and they will become confused since each one shouts to you “hear me, my lord!” And this one shouts and you don’t know to whom you should respond, and they don’t know to whom they should speak. (Bechor Shor [Rabbi Yosef of Orleans, 1140-1190, France])
  2. The people stood about Moses (18:13) to wait until he could turn to them after dealing with the princes and the leaders of the generation. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  3. When there are many judges, a party to a dispute can come to the judge whenever he wants and he will have the opportunity to be heard. (When Moses sat alone) a person could not approach him in a timely fashion because there were cases involving large sums of money or important people taking precedence. Therefore, many of them would tolerate the injustices that were done to them because they didn’t want to abandon their work and business affairs to wait for an opportunity to approach Moses. This would then provide an opening for robbers to commit crimes and exploiters to provoke disputes. (Ramban [Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain])

Sparks for Discussion

Jethro saw right away that Moses’ approach to leadership was not working well. At the simplest level, Bechor Shor sees the problem as people being kept waiting all day in the hot sun, leading to frustration and confusion. Sforno and many others add the notion that the rich and important went to the head of the line, leaving the ordinary people to wait.

Ramban points out that this is not only unfair, but dangerous. When people believe “the system is broken” or that it doesn’t have a place for people like them, they turn their backs on the system. Do you think our society suffers from “broken systems”? Where and how? Can you think of remedies that might make these systems work better or convince people to give them a chance? Does the Jewish community also suffer from broken systems? What can we do to fix them?

And the Winner Is...

You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. (Exodus 18:21-22)

  1. This is the generation and those who seek its welfare. (Tehillim 24:6) Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi and the sages differed about this matter. According to one opinion, the character of a generation is determined by its leader. According to the other opinion, the character of its leader is determined by the generation. (Arakhin 17a)
  2. +You shall also seek out from among all the people. You shall look for them with your prophetic power capable men that is, wealthy people, people of means who fear God who, when sitting in judgment, fear only God trustworthy men that is, people of trust who spurn ill-gotten gain those who when sitting in judgment hate to accept money. These are the words of Rabbi Joshua. Rabbi Eleazar of Modi’im said, You shall also seek out from among all the people. You shall look for them with the glass through which kings try to see capable men people of trust who fear God who seek to arbitrate litigation trustworthy men like Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa and his companions who spurn ill-gotten gain those who disdain their own money. For if they disdain their own money, how much more will they disdain the money of others. (Mekhilta, Amalek 4)
  3. Trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. What does this mean? Men who insist upon true justice and who spurn even their own wealth, how much more the wealth of others. Such a man would say, “Even though you burn my standing crops, even though you cut down my vineyard, nonetheless I will judge you truly.” (Tanhuma Yitro 2)
  4. Rabbi Berekiah said in the name of Rabbi Hanina, judges need to have seven qualities: Wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and four from this verse, You shall also seek out from among all the people... And why are not all seven stated together? To tell us that if men possessing all seven qualities cannot be found, choose a person with these four, and if the four cannot be found, then choose a person possessing three, and if even three cannot be found, then those possessing one quality are selected, for it is written, what a rare find is a capable woman (Mishlei 31:10), to hint that even the single quality of “capable” is difficult to find. (Devarim Rabbah 1:10)
  5. In the case of a court of three... it is essential that every one of the members thereof possess the following seven qualifications: Wisdom, humility, fear of God, disdain of gain, love of truth, love of his fellow men, and a good reputation. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin, 2:7 [Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt])

Sparks for Discussion

The United States is at the beginning of what promises to be a long and difficult election year. Can the Torah help us choose the best candidates? The commentators expand on Jethro’s words to explain the qualities of the men whom Moses should choose to be judges. Do you think these qualities are the ones we should seek in candidates for political office? Why?

The commentators focus on character traits. How much weight do you think should be given to character traits versus states positions on issues in choosing a president? A Supreme Court justice? The mayor of your town?

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