Upon reaching the Ten Commandments in this week’s Torah reading, the congregation will rise to reenact a singular moment: God addressing an entire people. The rabbis will describe this pivotal moment at Mount Sinai as huppah, the marital canopy, when God and the Jewish people entered into an enduring covenant (Midrash Mikhalta). This week’s Torah portion is named for Moses’ father-in-law who was the priest of Midian. What gives Yitro such merit?
At the outset of the Torah reading, Yitro had offered Moses guidance on how to administer justice. Specifically, Yitro told the novice leader that in order not to personally burn out or unduly burden the people, Moses needed to delegate judicial responsibilities and expand the base of leadership. Part of Moses’ greatness was his ability to listen to advice, demonstrated by even following the guidance of his wife’s father. The need for the administration of justice is universal. Among the seven laws of Noah is the requirement to maintain courts (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a). Only with a system of justice is there the assurance of safety and fairness, enabling people to live freely, securely and prosperously.
The merit that accrues to Yitro, Jewish sages proclaim, is due to his counsel on the administration of law. The Ten Commandments are chiseled into stone to forge relationships with God and other people. Love may prompt commitment, but the stone tablets convey the need for clarity of expectations. Law is both an expression of love and allows love to flourish. The rabbis share that in Hebrew chisel and freedom have the same root- charet. To obey the Ten Commandments requires constancy of self-discipline and loyalty. It also helps to live in a free society due to safety and the fair administration of justice.
In much of the world, people fear their leaders due to ruthless corruption. An extreme example is the Democratic Republic of Congo. An ongoing war has claimed as many as six million lives. Editorialist Nicholas Kristoff describes how a militia in Congo cuts flesh from living victims and forces them to eat it. Women are repeatedly raped, murder is rampant, and children are kidnapped into military service. The World Court has indicted Jean Bosco Ntaganda, the head of a leading Congo militia group, for war crimes. Lacking reliable courts and a semblance of justice suffering abounds.
Jewish World Watch is trying to make a difference in war-torn Congo through emergency aid, trauma relief, and sending delegates to bear witness and advocate for victims of violence. We have the opportunity, if even in a small way, to demonstrate that like Moses we listen to advocates for justice. Like the leaders that Moses appointed, we are invited to respond to the needs of others. Jewish World Watch has a track record for humanitarian relief by partnering with local peoples. The need for justice is universal. With the image of God as the parent of the whole of creation, our sages describe God as weeping for the suffering of God’s children. Yitro was not an Israelite, but helped shape Israelite justice and for that he is extolled. We as Jews have a duty to help forge justice for others, too. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, “You are not obligated to complete the task, nor are you free to neglect it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21).
Congregation B’nai Israel