This week’s Torah portion is Yitro, Exodus 18:1-20:23.
Although the main topic of this week’s Torah portion is the receiving of the Ten Commandments, it begins with Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, insisting that Moses set up a legal system for the Israelite community. Yitro sees Moses handling all the legal decisions and cases by himself, and explains to him that this is a bad idea.
Yitro tells Moses that his system is lo tov, not good — one of only two places in the Torah where this phrase is used. It is not good because Moses will navol tivol, usually translated as weary, both himself and the people because the matter is kaved mimcha, generally translated as too heavy/ too much for you.
This sentence could, however, be understood another way. Rather than weary the root word nvl also means disgrace and kvd also means honor. Yitro is worried not just that Moses will tire himself out, but that by putting himself as the lone voice of the law, he invites criticism. Even if he does his best, he cannot successfully and honestly manage an entire legal system and all its decisions alone.
Yitro sets out two instructions for the new system: the ratio of judges to people, and the middot, or traits, of these public servants. These traits are extremely important to Yitro — and to many of the commentators who discuss the traits. Their ethics must be unimpeachable. Specifically, they are to be noble, God-fearing people, people of truth, who hate profit.
It is only after such a system is in place — one with competent, ethical representatives, and a sufficient number of them with adequate resources — that laws can be given. As our tradition teaches, derech eretz — proper behavior — precedes Torah.
This Torah portion teaches that even religious authority must be grounded first in both sound structure and in middot. Otherwise what you have is a system of lip service in which a person can be, as Nachmanides says, a naval b’reshut hatorah, a scoundrel within the boundaries of Torah, a person who follows the rules, but still acts immorally.
Even law which is handed down as perfect will not remain so in the hands of a public servant who cannot be trusted to tell the truth or to handle money honestly. A judge must be a person who seeks to serve both people and the law impartially, not for his own gain or honor, and there must be many judges, to create a culture of just law.
The system is almost precisely that set out as what today is known as the rule of law: Everyone, both governor and governed are accountable to the law; laws are stable, just, and evenly applied; justice is delivered by competent, ethical and independent representatives; and there are a sufficient number of them with adequate resources.
This week, Israel stands before Sinai ready to receive the Torah. And we are ready because we were able to set in place a gift given to us by Yitro, the father of the court system. n
Rabbi Alana Suskin is director of strategic communications for Americans for Peace Now.