Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Doing Justice

Before moving on to study Parashat Mishpatim, let us conclude our analysis of the second of the two stories about Yitro that appear at the very beginning of last week's Parasha.

The Torah tells us that, the day after his epiphany about God's providence, Yitro found Moshe sitting and judging the Jewish people from morning till night. As the political leader of the nation and its prophet, Moshe handled every religious, administrative and judicial duty directly; he did not delegate. As a result, he was personally responsible for dealing with an enormous number of practical details and complications, ranging from the sublime to the trivial. (This was micromanagement at its worst - imagine if the Supreme Court were responsible for hearing every small claims or traffic court case in the country, and you'll get a sense of what it must have looked like!) The situation left Moshe overwhelmed, and proved a terribly frustrating experience for the Israelites who had to stand around all day long waiting for their cases to be heard. He was greatly disturbed by this and challenged Moshe:

What is this thing that you are doing to the people - why do you sit alone, while the entire nation stands before you from morning till evening?

Moshe acknowledged Yitro's question and responded:

Because the people come to me to seek God. When they have an issue, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his fellow; and I make known to them the laws of God and His instructions.

Yitro is not satisfied with Moshe's answer, and persists:

You will be worn out - you and this nation that is with you - because the matter is too heavy for you, and you cannot do it alone. Listen to my voice, I shall advise you, and may God be with you - you should be the representative before God, and should bring the matters before God. And you shall inform them of the laws and instructions, and you shall make known to them the path that they should walk in and the actions that they shall do. And now, choose from among the people men of valor...

Yitro proceeds to suggest a structural reformation of the national leadership, in which responsibilities will be divided up among lower judges and only major questions will be addressed to Moshe. In this way, Moshe will avoid burnout, and the people will not become frustrated or resentful because of the need to wait for Moshe's response to every minor question.

Why is this story important to us? What does it teach us, and how does it connect to the passages that precede and follow it in the Torah?

One of the salient features of the narrative is the repeated use of the name "God", "Elokim", instead of Hashem, by both Moshe and Yitro. This key term links the current episode to the prior one (in reality, the Torah text presents them as one long narrative; they are not separated into different paragraphs). As you may remember, Yitro brought a sacrifice in the name of "Elokim" because his acknowledgment of God stemmed from his perception of the Divine justice that was meted out in Egypt.

Indeed, the theme of justice is the central motif of the reorganization of the judiciary as well. Moshe is involved in judging cases. Yitro notices that the manner in which Moshe is leading the people is unjust - it winds up being a disservice to Moshe and to his people. Based upon his own insight into the paths of justice, Yitro recommends a reformulation of the Israelite bureacracy that removes the "injustice" from its "justice system".

There is an even deeper layer of "justice" that is implicit in the story. Yitro is an outsider, he literally was "born yesterday", at least from the standpoint of membership in the Jewish community. Yet his critique and suggestions are taken seriously. In some circles, we might imagine Yitro's meddling being dismissed casually with statements like, "who do you think you are to be telling us how to run our nation? You arrived less than twenty-four hours ago and you already see fit to criticize how things are done around here?" Indeed, this is exactly the reaction Lot met with when he tried to intervene with the citizens of Sedom, the ultimate disciples of corruption.

Moshe's unhesitating acceptance of Yitro's words signifies justice in its own right - an attachment to the truth without bias or prejudice. The source of an insight is irrelevant to its validity, and whether it comes from within Jewish ranks or from the priest of Midian, it must be considered honestly and objectively before being evaluated.

The two stories about Yitro and their common emphasis on justice form the perfect introduction to the Revelation at Sinai. The creation of a covenant between Hashem and a particular nation can easily be interpreted as an expression of favoritism or as the establishment of an exclusive Jewish "club" with special rights to God's attention. This attitude, however, is gravely mistaken.

By placing the narrative of Yitro before the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Torah wishes to show us that it is, first and foremost, grounded in the principles of universal Divine justice. Any human being can arrive at true knowledge of God, attach him or herself to the Jewish people and partake of its unique ideas and way of life. Furthermore, Judaism reserves its praise for truth and truth alone; it leaves no room for prejudice or discrimination. Indeed, we see that even our greatest prophet responded humbly and graciously to the constructive criticism of a gentile priest.

6 comments:

littlefoxling said...

Are you begging me to comment on this?

In verses 13-27, Elokim appears 7 times and the Holy name never. Could this be because the Holy name is not used in conjunction with judgment? Perhaps. But look at Deut 17:8 – 13 also dealing with judging uses the divine name 3 times.

But, more to the point, the Torah is a vast diverse book touching on many many topics. Still, only a handful of divine names are used. This suggests that these divine names are not limited to one usage, but can be used in various usages. Indeed, Elokim is used in many sorts of passages. And, interestingly, for most topics, you can find verses about that topic that use various different names. This suggests that the topic in question is not really driving the name change.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

LF, I certainly did think of you while composing this post!

Note that in the first narrative, which is not separated from this one by any parasha spacing, the name of Hashem is used, both by Moshe and Yitro, only to be replaced by Elokim when Yitro brings his sacrifice. Elokim is of course the name that introduces the Ten Commandments, although the Decalogue contains the name of Hashem as well.

FYI, I was on your blog today making sure I have all the facts straight before I respond to your recent series there. There is a lot of information to digest for someone who is not familiar with all of the nuances and intricacies of the DH system.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I didn't really respond to your main point - yes, I agree that the names are used for different things, but I believe there is a thematic unity behind the patterns of usage overall. And it is particularly striking to find the name Elokim emphasized so dramatically when, ever since the beginning of the process of the Exodus, the name Hashem has been dominant.

littlefoxling said...

Note that in the first narrative, which is not separated from this one by any parasha spacing, the name of Hashem is used, both by Moshe and Yitro, only to be replaced by Elokim when Yitro brings his sacrifice. Elokim is of course the name that introduces the Ten Commandments, although the Decalogue contains the name of Hashem as well.

Indeed, DH assigns this whole portion (chapt 18) to E despite the sprinkling of Holy names. After the revelation of the bush, E can use the Holy name, but less frequently than the other sources. Moreover, the division between E & J is never a sure thing. Personally, I don’t think there is that much evidence to support that division. While in the end of things I probably would accept that view, I would certainly not see it as a problem for faith.

FYI, I was on your blog today making sure I have all the facts straight before I respond to your recent series there. There is a lot of information to digest for someone who is not familiar with all of the nuances and intricacies of the DH system.

Yes. DH has a ton of information to digest. My intro posts only contained the tip of the ice berg! It took me over a year from the time I started researching it till I even began to follow. And, there’s things I still don’t get years later. If you want, I could recommend some intro books that explain things much better than I ever could. That’s really the right venue for learning the stuff. I blog just to have a forum to discuss with real people. But, you’ll get much more out of books than you will out of blogs. And, if anything on the blog is ever unclear, don’t hesitate to ask!

Yehuda said...

Please make those recommendations LF.

littlefoxling said...

Yehuda,

Just to note, I am a professional in the financial services industry, not an academic. My blog (which is mainly about DH) is an attempt to work out issues relating to DH for myself, for my own religious odyssey, but I do not have, nor claim to have, a very scholarly knowledge of the theory. I probably shouldn’t be writing book reviews on DH books. But, assuming you are likewise ignorant of academic study, I can tell you, ignoramus to ignoramus, which books I’ve liked of the small collection I’ve read on the subject.

The problem I’ve seen with DH books is that most books are either written from a popular standpoint or an academic standpoint. Those written from a popular standpoint dumb it down for you to the point where it might be interesting for a secular person, but really is below the level of a frum yid who are generally very holding in Tanach. Those written from an academic standpoint generally assume the reader is very holding in DH and don’t take the time to develop first principles, but get right into the deep lumdus.

Interestingly, the very old books tend to not have this problem and some of them are quite good reads. My personal favorite is

S. R. Driver, Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament, 9th
Edition, Edinburgh 1913, 1–159
[221.15/D782]

This is my favorite book about DH. I had read many books about DH before this one, but I did not really understand what DH was saying till I found this book. It is, in my opinion, an excellent read.

Of course, it has the disadvantage of being a little out dated and also might be difficult to get a hold of.

If you want something a little more up to date, I would recommend

Alexander Rofe Introduction to the Composition of the
Pentateuch, 1998 [JMS: BS 1225.2 R633]

That’s an excellent review of the theory and of the modern scholarship on the issue. He also has a lot to say about some of the later scholars who reject DH which some of the readers on this blog might find to be very interesting.

Rofe’s good cause he doesn’t assume you know it all already but it also isn’t too stupid. On the other hand, it’s meant to be only an introduction and he doesn’t really present the full weight of the evidence. Only a smattering. Of course, even Driver is an intro book and doesn’t have all the evidence, but he has a pretty large amount in my opinion.