Parshat Yitro 2018
Moshe comes to visit Israel 3000 years after the Torah is given, to see how his legacy is doing. He steps into a yeshiva in Bnei Brak where he sees young yeshiva bochers shuckling over big books which he learns are called gemorahs or the Talmud. One kid comes over and asks if he would like to learn with his chevrusa and Moshe says yes. When they find out that this is THE Moishe, they are ecstatic. “You can solve a big argument we’ve been having,” says one. What is it? Three times our Torah says not to cook a kid in his mother’s milk. I say this means to have separate meat and milk dishes. No, Moshe says. It means you should not cook a kid in his mother’s milk. Wait wait wait, says another, I say it means we should wait six hours between eating meat and milk. No, Moshe says a little less patiently. It means you don’t cook a little goat in his mother’s milk. Ah, says a third, I understand it to mean.. Moshe looks heavenward and runs out.
Today’s parsha is where it began (after the exodus, of course). The Torah, as embodied in the Ten Commandments, is given. And the Israelites will stay here for much of the rest of the Torah. But let’s take a few steps back, to the beginning of the parsha, where Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, comes to visit. He sees Moshe sitting all day, listening to the people’s grievances and legal and halachic problems and making decisions without end.
Yitro doesn’t hesitate. The thing you are doing is NOT GOOD, he tells his son-in-law. By the way, the only other time the expression “not good” appears in the Torah is in Bereshit – it is not good for a person to be alone. As Rabbi Jonathan Sachs notes, you can’t lead alone and you can’t live alone. Yitro gives the formula: set up courts for 10s and 50s and 100s, and you will be the supreme court for the really big issues. And you will be the conduit to God.
But it is the end of Yitro’s speech that demands special attention. “If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and so too all these people will reach their place in peace.” We understand how other judges will help Moshe. But aside from not having to stand on line for too long – how will this judicial system help the people to reach their place in peace?
The Talmud records a debate about whether it is better to settle civil law cases based on equity, meaning mediation, or by strict application of the law. Some rabbis go by Moshe’s approach which is that the law is the law. Others say let’s be like Aharon, who loved peace, and so let’s mediate and compromise. And they conclude: where there is strict justice there is no peace, and where there is peace there is no strict justice. But peace is more important. So mediate. With one qualification: only if the judge does not know who is actually in the right. If he knows, then compromise would be a distortion of justice.
Based on this Talmudic repartee, the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (19th century) offers an interpretation of our sentence about the people “reaching their place in peace,” cited by Rabbi Sachs.
Because Moshe had such great insight and divine guidance he knew who was right and who was wrong the moment an argument was laid before him. This being the case, he could not offer mediation, because mediation is possible only when the judge has not yet made up his mind.
Thus, by setting up a judicial system where others sat in judgment, it was possible to offer mediation as a means of resolving issues. In pure justice you have a winner and a loser. Losers are usually not happy or willing to maintain relations with the winner. Not conducive to peace. In mediation both sides receive something and either both sides are happy or both sides are distressed, but both feel they have been partially vindicated. The chances of cooperation afterwards are better.
Thus, according to the Netziv, by appointing judges with human limitations, Moshe was increasing the chances of the people coming to their place in peace.
If Moshe came around again, would he be pleased or unsettled by how our rabbinic and political leaders (it’s sometimes hard to separate the two) approach differences of opinion. Of course, each side believes that he is right and that the other is wrong. Each side believes that the other side is abrogating agreements and encroaching on their territory. Perhaps both are right. So both sides take to the ramparts and fight harder to protect their territory. Add to this the suspicion and accusations that the courts are biased and mediation becomes more of a challenge.
The absurd thing is that attempts to bring the sides together are greeted with passionate contempt. The religious say that learning secular subjects is idol worship and a waste of good Torah learning time. The secularists say that learning Torah and traditions and customs is religious coercion. The result is that we have two sides that have no idea what the other is about.
We can hope for some rapprochement but only if the sides actively work to implement what they surely know deep down – that only together can we stand strong over time.