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In one of our classes a couple of weeks ago, we examined a news article about who is a Jew (Who Is a Jew? Court Ruling in Britain Raises Question, New York Times, 11/8/09). About two years ago in England, a case came before their highest court to decide this distinctly Jewish question. It was a startling, troubling case. It came to the court’s purview because the British government pays for parochial education, even Jewish day schools. When applications far exceed spaces, the schools are allowed to give preferences to their own religious adherents.
Do you smell the trouble yet?
An observant student, whose father was born Jewish and whose mother had converted before his birth, was denied admission because Mom had converted under the auspices of a progressive branch of Judaism, and the Orthodox authorities connected to the school had deemed her conversion invalid, and therefore considered neither her nor her son Jewish.
Even in not so litigious Britain, the family sued.
Which brings us to this week’s torah portion, Yitro, the 5th one in the book of Shemot or Exodus.
So this week’s torah portion is about matan torah, the giving of the aseret dibrot, the ten words, or ten things – what we think of as the 10 Commandments. Of course we should discuss them, I thought. Then I started reading the commentaries I’ve been studying on this year’s journey through the torah: Avivah Zornberg and R. Jonathan Sacks, two of the smartest people I’ve read from our times. Professor Zornberg combines ancient midrash with modern psychology with the medieval commentators to arrive at a deeply psychospiritual approach. R. Sacks pulls in similar commentaries to bring the text alive in much more grounded ways.
I’ve also noticed that this year, oftentimes, I stop at the very beginning of the portion and barely look at what we tend to think of as the meat of the parasha. After all the 10 commandments are – well, pretty big, but they are not what is calling to me this time.
So, while the parasha moves into those amazing moments at the foot of Mt. Sinai, with the mountain on fire, the people trembling and sharing a collective moment of awe, the story starts in a mundane, human place.
Yitro, priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law appears, with Moses’ wife and kids, for a visit.
What happens when your in-laws arrive? Does your father-in-law tend to tell you how he thinks you should live your life? Does he criticize you, while seeming to praise you? Or even without seeming to praise you? Do you get along? Do you value his opinion?
So Yitro comes because he heard – yishma – all that Adonai had done for us in Egypt. For centuries, sages have commented on this. Rashi, the 11th Century French commentator, notes that Yitro was so impressed because he had sampled all the local gods, knew them all, and had concluded that indeed, mi chamocha ba’elim? Who is like You, among the gods? He comes in a sort of spiritual ecstasy, ready to throw in his lot with ours, to follow our God. He leaves the honor he has earned as priest in Midian to be in the wilderness, the nowhere place, with us. Each time he is mentioned in this text, he sheds a little of his old identity – first, priest of Midian, even his name at a later point, until all he is is Moses’ father-in-law and a follower of Adonai.
At this moment, he’s here with Moses, and the rest of us, and almost immediately he starts in on Moses. “What you are doing is lo tov! Not good!” (Ex. 18:17)
First, note that lo tov, not good, only appears one other time in the torah — when God notes that it is not good for Adam to be alone…
So what is lo tov? Moses spends the whole day listening to the complaints and concerns of his kahal (community) and making judgments and decisions. And, not surprisingly, he is exhausted. Overwhelmed. Imagine all the people coming to him, one after another all day long… the sound alone would be overwhelming.
So Yitro tells him to delegate. Have judges over the thousands, the hundreds, the fifties and the tens. Yitro tells his son-in-law, “Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you—you will be able to bear up, and all these people too will go home in peace.” (Ex. 18:22-23)
Okay, it’s easy to understand the concept that this delegating will make Moses’ life easier. He won’t have as many people’s problems to solve every day. While he will still get the thorniest ones, he might have some rest and time for himself.
But why would the effect on the people be that they “too will go home in peace”?
R. Sacks offers a fascinating explanation for this, based on the teachings of the 19th century scholar Netziv – Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin. Imagine Moses, the greatest of all our prophets: when he saw a pair bringing their dispute to him, he could always discern immediately who was right and who was wrong. He would immediately make his decision, and there would always be a winner and a loser.
There is a Talmudic discussion (B. Sanhedrin 6b) in which the rabbis argue whether mediation is a worthy enterprise, and the upshot is that yes, it is – it is written – “surely where there is strict justice there is no peace, and where there is peace there is no strict justice. What then is the justice that coexists with peace? We say: mediation.” Mediation is the way to go, because peace – shalom – is one of our highest ideals.
But there is one key proviso: if the judge KNOWS who is right and who is wrong, then mediation cannot proceed. The judge cannot suppress justice in that way.
So, applying this concept to Moses and his team of judges, Netziv notes that Moses – well, he has to follow strict justice, because he knows almost by looking at the contestants who is in the right and who is not. But the people to whom he delegates the majority of the cases – they don’t know yet. They are in the ideal position of helping people to negotiate a solution, listening, guiding them so that, rather than winners and losers, there might be win-win solutions, and a path to peace.
These mediators in most respects were lesser men than Moses, but this allowed their skills to help bring the people to peace. It takes more than a great law giver, more that the greatest prophet to keep a society. It takes peacemakers as well. It takes all sorts of people working together, doing what they do best, to make the community function.
So, if we go back to my opening story, about the English court case about Who is a Jew, it surprised me – and saddened me — to read that R. Sacks, who explains so beautifully, how important it is to have peacemakers and mediators in our community, was the person who rejected the boy and his mother as Jews. The court held that it was discrimination to decide who is a Jew by ethnicity and race, rather than by practice. It’s a very challenging court case for us, and I wonder what kept all the parties from coming to peace, mediating the problem within the Jewish community rather than going outside it.
Here in this torah portion we see a proselyte, the former priest of Midian, be honored without a ceremony of conversion: just his awe was enough. Moses’ interfaith marriage produced two Jews. We didn’t argue whether someone who believed or who practiced counted or not.
Yitro also highlights the benefits of working through the opposing ideals of justice and peace, of how creating peace is essential, while maintaining justice. May we always hold these ideals in our hearts and put them into practice in our lives. In our litigious age, may we work toward the ideals of our ancestors, that we may all go home in peace…