Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Yitro
To dedicate this lesson

Justice & Morality: Human or Divine?


Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon

13 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening.14 And when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did to the people, he said: ‘What is this thing that thou doest to the people? Why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand about thee from morning unto evening?’ 15 And Moses said unto his father-in-law: ‘Because the people come unto me to inquire of God; 16 When they have a matter, it cometh unto me; and I judge between a man and his neighbour, and I make them know the statutes of God, and His laws.’

What is Moses’ reply? Didn’t Moses understand that Yitro was not asking a technical question, "What are you doing?", but rather how does he stand from morning to evening alone?

International legal systems attempt to attain justice which solves interpersonal conflicts. The Jewish legal system understands that in addition to the human viewpoint, there must also be "Divine" justice – ‘Because the people come unto me to inquire of God.’ The foundations and rules of Jewish Law have passed from generation to generation. Some of these are "Halacha to Moshe from Sinai." These principles are implemented by our Judges with a human viewpoint and human justice. Human justice naturally leads to "Divine" justice.

Today, there is a legislative branch and a judiciary branch. Who makes the laws? Who decides what is just and what is moral? In Judaism, these are determined by the Torah. Following this determination, the judges can apply the laws of the Torah. In civil law, this is determined by the people through the Knesset and its duly elected representatives. They can decide what is just and what is moral for them. There is also the judicial branch, whose judges are chosen for their wisdom, intelligence, honesty and integrity, and they are responsible for the application of the law in reality. Unfortunately, today in Israel, the judicial branch sometimes takes on the role of the legislative branch. This can be problematic, because lifestyles, political views and religious leanings may unduly influence legal definitions. Therefore, in a system that is not Divine, this must be determined by the people alone. And this is Moses’ response – ‘Because the people come unto me to inquire of God.’ We do not want a justice system based only upon human morality, but rather human morality based on Divine morality.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) explains that Moses believed there should be a composite figure, combining Halachic authority, judicial authority, and a spiritual authority, or Tzaddik, who may be approached to pray for the sick and the like. Therefore, following Yitro’s advice, there was a split between the different components – the leadership, legislative and judicial arms of the systems.

It seems that Moses would have made the transition to a more organized legal system eventually, along the lines proposed by Yitro, but it would have taken much longer. It is vital to teach G-d’s Torah and His laws. Judges must have through knowledge of the legal system so that there will be true justice according to Divine Torah laws. Yitro’s comment to Moses that his strength will "wither" moved him to make this change at an earlier stage.

I heard a different explanation from my esteemed Rav, HaRav Yehuda Amital zt"l, by means of an interesting story. Once, Rav Moshe from Korvil came to the Admor Rav Yisrael from Afta, known as Ha’Ohev Yisrael (Rav Moshe was a Rav who wandered from one Admor to another to learn from their customs.) On Erev Shabbat, the Admor went to the synagogue before the community arrived in order to recite Shir Hashirim with great devotion.

Rav Moshe obsereved the Admor who just returned from immersion in the Mikve and dressed in his streimel for Shabbat. He watched as the Admor said Shir Hashirim with sparks of holiness emanating from his throat. Suddenly, a Jew dressed in clothing from a cowshed and smelling like an animal pen, came in and approached the Rav. Rav Moshe watched in expectation and wondered: What question is so urgent that this Jew approached the Admor in such a state? He overheard as the Jew asked: Rebbe, my cow is about to give birth and I’m afraid she will die. The Admor advised the Jew what to do and he left.

Rav Moshe became very angry. How can anyone disturb the Admor at such a time with such an unimportant question? How can the Jew enter the Holy of Holies dressed in such a way? After the meal he asked the Admor about it.

The Admor replied: Do you think the farmer yelled, "My cow, my cow?" The Jew cried out, "Rebbe, Rebbe!" The farmer wants to speak to his Rebbe, but has really nothing to talk about. Will he discuss a passage in the Gemara? Will he talk about Rambam? What subject does he have in common to discuss with his Rebbe? So, finally, he found an excuse – his cow! The cow was his way to reach out to his Rebbe, the excuse to be in his Rebbe’s company!

This is what Moses explained to Yitro. The people want a connection to Moses, so they approach him with all kinds of minor problems and questions. Other people will not solve the problem, since the people wish to connect to their Rebbe. Therefore, and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening.

However, Moses ultimately understood that despite this ideal, he cannot continue in the same manner, or he will "wither." But the principle remained, and anyone who truly wished to approach Moses directly could do so.

We must also be aware that when someone approaches us with a question or request for advice, this is not always what he truly seeks. At times, he is truly reaching out for a personal connection or relationship. May we also learn to listen closely with great sensitivity to those who turn to us, and respond in a way that will answer their true needs.
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