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Peter J. Rubinstein
Parashat Yitro - Jethro Shabbat

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  February 10, 2012

The nature of the Torah is always that its anomalies provide the commentaries with the greatest grist to the mill of their midrashic expedition and with their fierce debate both about textual minutiae about which we probably (those of us who study) may care very little.  But certainly we pay attention to the matter of pervading principles, which is very much the meat of what the commentators and responses debate about.

The story of Jethro is a significant and powerful example of such an anomaly.  But this one is not textual, or about grammar as we’ve discussed in the past, but about a matter of probably pretty obvious chronology.


Since this portion also includes the Ten Commandments, which we will be reading this evening, let me just very briefly remind you of the story of Jethro. Remember that Jethro was Moses’ father-in-law. In short, having joined the encampment of the Israelites, Jethro espies Moses sitting as a magistrate among the people, making all of the litigants stand around him. Jethro, I would imagine seeing how impatient the people were, inquires of Moses “Why are you acting alone?” and Moses to that question responds,  “Because the people come to inquire of God, and when they have a dispute, they appear before me and I make the decisions and I make known the laws and the teachings of God.”


Jethro, being wise about matters of humanity, suggests to Moses that he seek other capable colleagues who also fear God, and who spurned ill-gotten gains, and that these men—and they were men, sadly—that these men be set over the people as judges, leaving only the most difficult matters to come to Moses himself, which means that Moses would act as somewhat of a Supreme Court for the Israelites.  Of course as I pointed out in the past, the major miracle that’s incorporated in this, one of the few times probably in history, is that Moses followed his father-in-law’s advice.


So what then is the chronological problem here?  It is that this entire scene occurs prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments, which occurs in this text over a chapter later.  And the obvious question is how Moses could act as mediator and determine the solutions to disputes if in fact the law had not been given yet.


Now really always when these problems arise in matters of chronology, the easy way out is offered that the Torah is not keseder, that in fact the events of the Torah are not necessarily written in order.  But there is another explanation, less chicken than the first, which is that Moses, as is true for every honest judge, is considered a partner in Creation.  Imagine: as a lawyer, he is considered a partner in Creation.  After all, this explanation goes, God created the universe from nothing, but God constantly sustains the existence of the universe as though recreating it every moment at every instant.  And if that renewal did not occur, Creation would instantaneously revert to utter nothingness.  And thus, the explanation goes on, every judge is considered God’s partner in Creation, because as Pirke Avot teaches, according to Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, himself the head of the great Sanhedrin and a great magistrate himself,  “Al sh’loshah d’varim ha-olam omeid,”  “The world stands on three things.” But not the three things we usually talk about: these three things are “al ha-din, v’al ha-emet, v’al ha-shalom.”  The world stands on justice, on truth, and on peace. (Pirke Avot 1:18)  Thus a judge or a lawyer who upholds these three things sustains the universe.


Moses himself might have foreseen the laws that would soon be dictated on Mount Sinai, but moral judgment, and truth, and peace: those are qualities that are not necessarily matters of law as much as they are attributes, personal attributes that are embedded in the dispenser of justice, rather than in the law itself.


So we can theorize that until the giving of the Ten Commandments, Moses demonstrated throughout history the best that we Jews would expect: not only being an expert in the law, but also having an innate sense of justice, truth-tellers, and that those involved in law, would also be peace-seekers.  Thus in the story of Jethro, Moses did not depend on the details of the law.  The story emerges as an exposition of the personal qualities of great judges, according to our tradition great judges—and I would dare add, great honest and truthful peace-seeking lawyers, and members of the legal community in its entirety—are also, for those of us who are beneficiaries of it, the copartners in the renewal of Creation.


Tonight, as we do every year at Parshat Yitro, we celebrate the members of that profession, for the wellbeing and trust of our community does rely on them. We honor those who, like Moses and Jethro, understand that justice is not limited to the law as much as it is dependent on the dispensers of justice, the advocates who seek it, and all those who support it.  For you who do that make us a better society.  And the 65th attorney general of this state Eric Schneiderman, I believe, is one in whom we find these principles of justice, truth, and peace, as he works upon renewing the trust and civic wellbeing and the guarantee of rights in our state, and in fact across this nation.


Of course we all know that as the highest ranking law-enforcement officer in the state, he was elected to that position in November of 2010.  He has already taken on, as among his first acts, the appointment of public-integrity officers in every area and region of the state so that New Yorkers have a place to report complaints of government corruption without the fear of local politics influencing the outcome.  When he was elected, the next day he avowed “I’ve stood up to powerful forces before.” And from my perspective, in his ongoing vigorous defense of abortion rights, and support of same-sex marriages, and in other matters, he has demonstrated his personal willingness to be strong in order to restore our faith in our public and private sector institutions.  He cares about public integrity, he cares about economic and social justice, he cares about the protection of our environment.


And finally, it has been brought to my attention, that during the State of the Union address, President Obama announced a new unit within the financial fraud enforcement task force, and the New York Times reports that Attorney General Schneiderman will be one of the leaders of that new unit.  And for those who gauge status on the basis of appearance, it was also pointed out to me, although I cannot be certain of this, that during the State of the Union address he was sitting behind Michelle Obama, which of course immediately makes him important in this country.


But I think that the greatest testimony to his impeccable brilliance and integrity—and this I think would be supported by very few of us—is that as a fellow Lord Jeff he graduated from Amherst College in 1977, which is an indication of so much more than his personal status. But in fact in order to pursue what he has as public awareness and astuteness, he threw a bone to those who went to the Ivy League by going on to Harvard Law School.  So good for him.


And so it’s a great honor that we have him this evening.  After the reading of the Torah, Attorney General Schneiderman will speak to us briefly in preparation for his talk,  “Applying Jethro’s Advice to the Modern Day Pursuit of Justice.” That talk will be at the conclusion of services, and will be without questions and answers. Well, not public questions and answers.  We may have questions and we can ask each other, and I’m sure with expert advice, answer them ourselves.  But now we prepare to read those commandments which establish law for us, and for in fact all religious groups and for society.  We will be reading Exodus chapter 20, verse 8 through 14.

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