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21.01.2019 16:59    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  shemot  yitro  

"The people come to me to inquire of G-d"

To Jethro's question as to what Moses was doing to the people, Moses replies (Ex. 18:15-16):

It is because the people come to me to inquire of G-d.  When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of G-d.

Resolving conflicts between one another is defined as inquiring of G-d.   It is not only a matter of seeing to a well-ordered society, which requires a method of conflict resolution in order to enable disputants to carry on amicably or to find the correct balance between them, but also a matter of clarifying the will of G-d in order to reveal the truth and render justice in the situation at hand.  In any civilized society human beings establish laws and rules that make it possible to maintain the social order and public life.  The laws of the Torah, however, are intended to direct us towards the proper heavenly order by which the world will be well-run and just.

"To inquire of G-d [Elohim]"—the word elohim also denotes the judges who adjudicate the laws of the Torah (Midrash Tanhuma [Buber ed.], Parashat Aharei-Mot 12):


In all charges of misappropriation—pertaining to an ox, an ass, a sheep, a garment, or any other loss, whereof one party alleges, "This is it"—the case of both parties shall come before G-d:  he whom G-d declares guilty… (Ex. 22:8).   He whom G-d [Elohim] declares guiltyElohim means the judges, for it is written of them:  "You shall not revile G-d [Elohim]" (Ex. 22:27).[1]


Divine justice is brought to light and clarified by the said judges, and therefore they are given this special appellation:

Rabbi Hiyya b. Rab of Difti recited to them:  The people stood about Moses from morning until evening—now, can you really think that Moses sat and judged all day?  When was his learning done?  But it is to teach you:  Every judge who judges with complete fairness, even for a single hour, the Writ gives him credit as though he had become a partner to the Holy One, blessed be He, in the act of creation.  (Shabbat 10a)

Rabbi Samuel b. Nahmani, reporting Rabbi Jonathan, said:  A judge who delivers a judgment in perfect truth causes the Divine Presence to dwell in Israel, for it is written:  G-d stands in the divine assembly; among the divine beings He pronounces judgment (Ps. 82:1).  And he who does not deliver judgments in perfect truth causes the Divine Presence to depart from the midst of Israel, for it is written:  "Because of the groans of the plundered poor and needy, I will now act," says the Lord (Ps. 12:6).  (Sanhedrin 7a)

A judge who delivers judgment in perfect truth—one who examines the case thoroughly, elucidating all sides of the issue as is fit and proper, and who instructs the parties how to act becomes a partner with the Holy One, blessed be He, in building the world and in causing the Divine Presence to be felt on earth.  Thus Rav Kook explained the unique character of the laws of the Torah:

Insofar as the divine laws stem from the source of supreme Truth, their objective is not merely the immediate one of settling passing disputes in the life of mankind, rather they are to elevate all life and existence, proceeding from the foundation of supreme Truth imbued in them.  For they cause the Divine Presence to dwell in the world and bring their influence to bear on mankind and the world.[2]

The seat of the Sanhedrin, the High Court, was in the Temple, in the Chamber of Hewn Stone.  "Why was the passage on laws put next to the passage on the altar?  To tell you that the Sanhedrin should be placed in the Temple" (Rashi on Ex. 21:1).  The Sanhedrin, judges dealing with the Lord's laws, are part and parcel of the way in which the Divine Presence dwells in the Temple.


Alongside the legal system that Moses instituted at Jethro's suggestion, he taught the Law to Joshua and the seventy elders, transferring to them the ability and authority to instruct and rule on the Halakhah, this being the act of ordination (Maimonides, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 4.1):

Our teacher, Moses, ordained Joshua by placing his hands upon him, as Numbers 27:23 states:  "He laid his hands upon him and commissioned him."  Similarly, Moses ordained the seventy elders and the Divine Presence rested upon them.  Those elders ordained others, and the others still others in later generations.  This tradition extends back to the court of Joshua and the court of Moses.

Ordination signifies that the person thus ordained is fit to teach Halakhahbecause he carries on the tradition of instruction and halakhic ruling from the time of Moses, who received the Law from the Almighty at Mount Sinai.

At a later period, the Romans decreed it illegal to ordain teachers of Halakhah(Sanhedrin 14a):

Once the wicked Government decreed that whoever performed an ordination should be put to death, and whoever received ordination should be put to death, the city in which the ordination took place demolished, and the boundaries wherein it had been performed, uprooted.  What did Rabbi Judah b. Baba do?  He went and sat between two great mountains, between two large cities; between the Sabbath boundaries of the cities of Usha and Shefar`am, and there ordained five elders:  Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Simeon, Rabbi Jose and Rabbi Eliezer b. Shamu`a.  Rabbi Awia adds also Rabbi Nehemia to the list.  As soon as their enemies discovered them, he urged them:  "My children, flee."  They said to him, "what will become of you, Rabbi?"  "I lie before them like a stone which none is concerned to overturn," he replied.  It was said that the enemy did not stir from the spot until they had driven three hundred iron spear-heads into his body, making it like a sieve.

Why was a decree passed against ordination and such a severe penalty meted out to its violators?   What in this action so deeply disturbed the Romans?  Apparently it was difficult for them to accept the Israelite assumption that the legal system derives its force from a Supreme source, that ever since Revelation at Mount Sinai an ordained judge (and any other judge, even if not ordained) must investigate and clarify the will of G-d according to the rulings and interpretations that have accrued through the generations up to his day.  At issue here are not only human intellectual constructs by upright, justice-seeking people, but also the aspiration to know the law from a higher place.

Also the adjudicants are partners in Divine justice (Exodus Rabbah [Vilna ed.], 30.1):

"It was You who established equity, You who worked righteous judgment in Jacob" (Ps. 99:4).   You have established equity for those who love You; for through the ordinances You have given them, they become involved in strife with one another, submit their quarrel to judgment and make peace.

One could understand this as saying that the Holy One, blessed be He, is praised here for the very act of establishing justice and for making it possible for disputants to resolve their conflict and establish peace between them.  Rabbi Jacob Harlap, however, has a different understanding:

That is to say, were it not for the ordinances, there would be no disagreements among Israel.  They come to strife only so that the light of Divine justice be translated from potential to reality, but as soon as a ruling on the law is issued, they make peace.  Any issue that arises between two Jews is but to reveal part of the Oral Law that stems from the deepest will of the Almighty, who for the sake of His justice desires to magnify and glorify the Law, that all of G-d's laws be revealed in actual practice.

Not only laws concerning relations between man and G-d have come down to us from the heavenly origins of their foundation, but also laws and ordinances governing relations between one person and another have come down to us with all their roots and origins.  Do not dare to imagine that the ordinances between one and another are all only of this world, established in the wake of conflicts between one person and another; rather, they also are deeply rooted on high, and from that heavenly foundation the laws and conflicts come into existence, they being the fundamental revelation of the Oral Law.[3]

Strife and conflict between human beings come into being so that the Divine law will be revealed and exposited, unlike the case with other legal systems, in which rulings, laws or regulations are established solely on the basis of human constructs.  Not all possible eventualities can always be predicted, and legal rulings, laws or regulations are established in the wake of accumulated cases and experience.  The laws of the Torah were given at Mount Sinai, and the role of the judge is to investigate and reveal what was said then and accordingly to determine and decide the case at hand, thus also setting the direction for future rulings.

Translated by Rachel Rowen


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