Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 15 February 2020 / 20 Shevat 5780

Parshat Yitro

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Way to Go

Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, shares with Moshe his observations of the untenable burden Moshe was carrying in single-handedly resolving all of the disputes the people brought before him. In response, Moshe conveys the responsibility he carries — the people come to him because they seek G-d! He must act as arbiter of disputes, and, more generally, educate the people about G‑d’s laws and teachings. Before unveiling his hierarchical judicial system, Yitro instructs Moshe, “You must also clarify to them the statutes and the teachings, and make known to them the way in which they are to go and the deeds they are to do.” Once this is in place, delegation of judicial function will not impair the messages Moshe intended to impart when serving as the single arbiter. What are these foundational principles which will guide all of dispute resolution for those who seek to live in accordance with G-d’s Will?

First, Yitro tells Moshe “v’hizharta.” This term is normally translated as “warn.” In the reflexive form it means to be careful (to let oneself be warned.) However, the root of the word — z.h.r. — denotes brightness, shining light. In the verb form it means to radiate light, or to shed light. Here, Moshe is instructed to illuminate the laws so that they shine in the eyes of the people — both in the sense of highlighting their prominence, and in the sense of revealing their true purpose. This guidance will lead them in the way of G-d’s Will.

Our Rabbis interpreted the various phrases in Yitro’s guidance as follows: “Make known” — their livelihood; “the way” — acts of loving-kindness…“and the deeds” — acting according to strict justice; “they are to do” — acting beyond the letter of the law. (Bava Metzia 30b)

“Way” (derech)always denotes movement towards a goal. This is why a person’s livelihood is referred to as derech eretz — his activity for the sake of earning a livelihood and meeting one’s needs. Moshe is to teach them the way in which they are to go in securing their livelihood and well-being. Ordinarily, people seek their ownwelfare. The people of Israel, however, are to act with loving-kindness. More, this loving-kindness is not in addition to seeking one’s own welfare; it is the purpose of or the way in which one must seek his own welfare. A Jew is to consider his own existence and livelihood as being for the sake of others. This is the light that Moshe is to shine upon the laws — lighting the “way” in which one is to live. Indeed the word that has come to represent the corpus of Jewish law is called halacha — the way a Jew is to go.

Certainly, a Jew must ensure that his dealings with his fellow man meet an objective standard of justice (“the deeds”). But, conducting one’s affairs in the enlightenedway requires more. Even if one’s actions may be strictly fair and correct, and the other party may have no right to demand anything from him, for one’s own sake — for one’s own moral development towards the goal of love and self-sacrifice — he will go beyond the strict requirements of the law, and act in loving-kindness (“they are to do”). While a judge may never demand this of a person, every seeker of justice should demand it of himself. In Jewish jurisprudence, going beyond the call of duty is not mere supererogation. It is the fundamental goal of the system. It is the light that Moshe himself shone on the law, revealing the noble moral and social obligations which are its aim. Only when this teaching is in place may the wheels of justice be set in motion.

  • Source: Commentary, Shemot 18:20
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