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Parashat Yitro 5776 — 01/30/2016

Parashat Yitro 5776 — 01/30/2016

Shemot 18:1-20:23

R. Steinsaltz asks a very pertinent question à propos of Yitro’s advice to Moshe Rabbeinu about setting up a judicial system. The Torah tells us that “The people stood by Moses from the morning until the evening” (18:13). Moses would render judgment on all cases, large or small. Yitro responds by telling Moshe, “The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out – you as well as this people that is with you – for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone” (18:17-18). He then proposes a hierarchical judicial system with “…leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens” (18:21) who would judge the lesser cases, and only bring the hard ones, or the ones needing direct Divine input, to Moshe. Moshe goes ahead, and, apparently with Gd’s blessing, implements this system.

R. Steinsaltz’ question is very simple. Moshe Rabbeinu grew up in the court of Pharaoh, the ruler of a large and powerful empire. The Egyptians had to coordinate the activities of many people with the annual flooding of the Nile, so they must have had an efficient system of social organization (as morally repugnant as we have seen it to be). Furthermore, there were great disparities of wealth, and I would expect a concomitant degree of crime. Therefore, there must have been some system of laws and a mechanism to adjudicate disputes and enforce decisions. In other words, Yitro couldn’t have been telling Moshe Rabbeinu something he wasn’t already intimately familiar with. Why didn’t Moshe Rabbeinu put such a system into place himself? Why did it take Yitro’s prodding for him to do so? And if Moshe Rabbeinu did have a reason for judging all the individual cases all day long, what was it in Yitro’s advice that made him change his mind?

R. Steinsaltz’ answer is very simple. Of course Moshe Rabbeinu was aware of hierarchical legal structures. He did not implement one because he did not think it was appropriate for the Jewish people. The purpose of the Jewish people is to become perfect – perfect individuals in an ideal society. In such a society, all would truly be equal in holiness. Having one Jew in a subordinate position to another, Moshe felt, was not in keeping with the dignity of every individual Jew. In fact, when Korach complains to Moshe (in parashat Korach) that “all the congregation is holy,” it is not clear that Moshe disagrees in principle. Of course by that time, after the sins of the Golden Calf and the spies, it has become clear to Moshe what Yitro had seen much earlier, that Moshe’s vision of the Jewish people was a vision of the ideal to which we must all strive, but it was not the current reality that we all have to deal with. In fact, Gd had already made this clear (by the time of Korach) by creating the Kohanim-Levi’im-Yisrael hierarchy.

When Yitro came to Moshe, shortly after the Exodus and before the giving of the Torah, of course things were still in a much more fluid state. Still, it must have been clear to everyone that Israel was not at the ideal state that we strive for. After all, would there be quarrels and disputes that would have to be adjudicated day and night if we were? Therefore Yitro suggested to Moshe that perhaps it was not possible to impose an ideal system on a nation that was not yet ready for it. In the same way, at Mt. Sinai Gd revealed himself to the people, even though they were not really ready for such an experience. To be sure, Gd had good reason to want to do this, so that we would have seared into our collective consciousness that Gd speaks with human beings and that Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy (i.e. the Torah) is real and binding on us. Nevertheless, the Midrash tells us that the actual experience of the Revelation was so overwhelming that the people’s souls departed and they had to be revived by a specially dispatched band of angels. And 40 days after the Revelation, the people were dancing around the Golden Calf.

There is a discussion in the Talmud as to whether the people acted appropriately in asking Moshe to be an intercessor between Gd and the people. One opinion has it that they should have protested “It is better to learn from the Master rather than from the disciple.” The same can be said for the judicial system – is it better to be judged by the master (Moshe Rabbeinu) or his disciples? In the first case of course, it is the people’s inability to withstand the intensity of the Revelation that is at issue. In the second, it is Moshe Rabbeinu’s inability to hear every case that is the issue. But in both cases it is the weakness of the people that is the ultimate cause of our need to have a layered approach to Gd, from leaders of tens up through Moshe Rabbeinu and thence to Gd.

I might interject here that this appears to be an example of Moshe’s being so far above the people’s level that they couldn’t possibly “keep up” with him. There is a Midrash that states that the reason Moshe could not enter the Land of Israel was that he would have built the Temple, which would have been so perfect that it could never have been destroyed – therefore when Israel sinned, as was inevitable since they were not perfect, Gd would not have been able to destroy the Temple as a reaction, and would have destroyed the people instead, Gd forbid. In other words, a perfect system may not be ideal, and may even be counterproductive and harmful, to an imperfect people.

An ideal human being is one for whom Gd is a full-time living reality. Such a person needs no intercessor, no judge, no set of laws. His awareness is perfectly in tune with what is right and proper, his perception is pure and accurate, and he has transcended his bodily appetites, so he is not led astray. Truly, had all Israel been prophets, as was Moshe’ fervent wish (Bamidbar 11:29), Moshe could have sat and judged the people all day. In fact, he would have been sitting with his feet up on the desk, waiting for customers, and beaming at the fact that there weren’t any. Alas, we are still trying to get to that state. But the Torah Gd gave us through Moshe is the guidebook to perfecting ourselves and fulfilling the purpose of Creation.

Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6,9:5-6

I believe that chronologically the 6th chapter of Isaiah is the first of his prophecies. It contains the revelation of Gd to Isaiah that is enshrined in the liturgy as the kedushah: Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh H” Tzeva’ot – Holy, holy, holy is Hashem, master of legions, the whole world is full of his glory. The last two verses, from Chapter 9, include the verse, later to be immortalized in Handel’s Messiah: For unto us a child is born. I believe that in prior centuries in Europe, these verses had become so co-opted by the church that they were skipped from this haftarah reading.

The parallel with the parashah is in the description of the revelation to Isaiah, and its similarities and differences from the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Also part of the revelation was that Gd has a Heavenly Court around Him – this is developed more in later prophecies. Why does Gd need a court? Certainly, in the celestial realms all is perfection; the angels don’t have disputes that need to be sorted out! When we say that we here on earth are striving for perfection, I think it means that there is, on some abstract level, a perfect structure to which we try to conform. The prophets may have revelations of these perfect forms and at times they pass their vision on to us in literary form. But ultimately, perfection resides inside our own consciousness, and it is to this internal vision of perfection (sometimes called our “conscience”) that we try and conform our outer behavior. As we grow, our perception of the ideal becomes clearer, so in a sense the challenge becomes greater, as we see our imperfections ever more clearly. But with every step, our strength also grows to meet those challenges as well.