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Yitro 5769-2009

“Ambassadors Needed”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Yitro, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, gives his son-in-law practical and insightful advice regarding the structure of the judicial system of the People of Israel.

In Exodus 18:13-14, we are told that the day after Jethro arrived at the camp of Israel at the Mountain of G-d, he saw Moses judging the people from morning until evening. Jethro asks Moses: “Mah ha’davar ha’zeh ah’sher ah’tah oseh la’ahm?” What is this thing that you do to the people? Why do you sit alone with all the people standing by you from morning to evening? Moses explains to Jethro that he sits in judgment in this manner in order to resolve the people’s differences and issues. Jethro warns Moses (Exodus 18:18-19),“Nah’vohl tee’bohl gahm ah’tah, gahm ha’ahm ha’zeh ah’sher ee’mach,” You shall surely become worn out, you as well as this people that is with you, for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone.

Jethro bids Moses to listen to his voice and heed his advice. He suggests that Moses act as the people’s representative to G-d, and convey all the matters to G-d, but he need not judge the people alone. Jethro recommends that Moses select from among the nation, men of accomplishment, G-d fearing people, men of truth, people who despise money, and appoint them as leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens. These representatives will judge the people at all times, but will bring all the major matters to you, Moses, and every minor matter, they shall judge. In this way, they will ease your burden. If you do this thing, says Jethro, and G-d shall command you, then you will be able to endure, and this entire people as well, shall arrive at its destination in peace. Heeding the words of his father-in-law, Moses establishes the judicial hierarchy of Israel in the manner that Jethro had suggested.

There is a very wonderful tale told about the first Prime Minister of Israel, David ben Gurion, and a very prominent Zionist rabbi at the time, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon (1875-1962). Rabbi Maimon’s abiding dream was, once the State of Israel was established, to resurrect the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Israel. Ben Gurion, who was a serious student of the Bible, often teased Rabbi Maimon about his rather fanciful proposal to restore the ancient court. On one occasion, the Prime Minister was reputed to have said to the rabbi: “Rabbi Maimon, we learn from Jethro all the qualifications that the judges must meet to serve the people. I can understand where you will find men of accomplishment, G-d fearing people, men of truth. But, where in the world will you ever find people who despise money?” Without missing a beat, Rav Maimon responded: “Don’t worry, Ben Gurion, for the right price we’ll find them!”

Unfortunately, Rabbi Maimon’s dream of reestablishing the Sanhedrin never became reality. Perhaps Ben Gurion was right?!

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) comments on Jethro’s advice to Moses to appoint leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens. Citing the Talmud in Sanhedrin 18a, Rabbi Hirsch notes that the total number of judges required to meet the needs of the people according to Jethro’s plan seems to be extraordinarily large–-totaling 78,600. Rabbi Hirsch suggests that this implies that every seventh or eighth man in Israel who lived an honest life and who had some knowledge of the Torah was called upon to be a judge in Israel. This comes to teach, says Rabbi Hirsch, that every Jewish man is expected to live an honest life and not be ignorant of the law. That is why even today, in cases of disputes, three lay people may act as a tribunal to decide basic disputes, even though they are not “professional” judges. As long as the tribunal is accepted by the litigants, these judges have the authority to issue a ruling that must be followed.

Once again, we see how Judaism regards education as the ultimate value. All Jews, both men and women, are expected to be properly educated. Also obvious is that the set up of the Jewish judicial system reflects a pyramid of brotherly responsibility–asserting that each judge is responsible for the people within his jurisdiction.

How unfortunate it is that this feature of Jewish life has vanished. We no longer have significant numbers of committed and broadly-educated lay people who fulfill these communal responsibilities as part of their everyday lives. Despite the proliferation of intensive Jewish education today, which is probably unparalleled in Jewish history, we lack the structure where the more learned feel responsible for those who are less learned.

Perhaps the Torah is trying to tell us a simple truth: Experts cannot do it alone.

The truth is that no outreach organization, not National Jewish Outreach, not Chabad, not Aish HaTorah, not Ohr Samayach, can hope to reach the many millions of Jews who are estranged from their heritage. The numbers are too large, and the task too great. It is simply impossible. That is why it is important that all committed Jews see themselves as virtual “ambassadors” to Jewish life.

I have often said, only half in jest, that for the price of a chicken, you can make a Baal Teshuva! For the price of a chicken, you can bring a Jew home! One need not be an expert or a scholar to reach out to fellow Jews. Simply offering a warm and welcoming Shabbat meal can often do the trick. Such a meal for a distant Jew can be a transformational experience. In fact, if every committed North American Jew would invite 2-3 guests home once or twice a month for a Shabbat meal, the entire Jewish community of North America, in short order, could probably have such a transformational experience.

Jethro was certainly telling us more than simply advising Moses to set up a judiciary. Time and time again, we learn of people who, not too long ago, took a Hebrew Reading Crash Course and are now teaching others how to read Hebrew. By mobilizing the committed community, we can change the face of contemporary American Jewish life. If we fail to do so, an accounting for our lack of action will surely be demanded of us.

Let’s mobilize. Let’s start calling our friends, neighbors and relatives. Let’s reach out. Let’s renew that ancient hierarchy. Together, we can change Jewish destiny.

May you be blessed.