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The impact of Parashat Yitro on world civilization and the Jewish nation is immense. The Israelites experience an extreme change at that time. No longer slaves, they become free.
We might ask ourselves why this Torah portion starts with the story of Yitro, Moses‘ father-in-law, rather than with the main issue of the parashah, the foundational laws addressed to this freed people–the Ten Commandments.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the Torah portion. Yitro comes to visit Moses, who is struggling with the difficult task of establishing a government for his people. Moses works alone. Because of the circumstances, this one-man justice system is accepted by the people without question. The trust of the people rests on the assumption that Moses is the only one that has direct contact with God, and as a result of that ability, Moses is the only one who can reach the truth.
Yitro gives Moses one of the most important pieces of advice that humanity has ever received: to build a justice system based on judges who have never had direct contact with God.
Like the Justice System Today
The model suggested by Yitro is (with some changes, of course) found in the justice system that we know today. The model is built on a hierarchy according to the severity of the issues. Minor issues are dealt with by the lower court, and more serious issues are dealt with by Moses himself. Only at that point, after Moses has established a justice system, the people are given the Ten Commandments and accept it.
Why now? Why is the Torah given to Israel at this point, and why is it suddenly necessary?
The answers to these questions are connected directly to Yitro’s advice. The people of Israel decide to accept the human justice system. From the lack of any criticism or comment, we can understand that the system is expected to work effectively, without requiring God’s intervention.
The moment of acceptance of the principle that a society should be based on fair and equitable human justice system–this is the moment for which God, as it were, has waited. From God’s point of view, the people are ready now to receive the Torah–they had to first reach the stage in which they would be worthy of it. God may now assume that the people are ready to follow the whole corpus of principles, basic values and laws set down by the justice system that Moses will present to them in stages.
These stages, by necessity, are to be implemented without divine assistance, in order for the people to properly learn to adjust to this new form of human society, which they had never experienced when they were enslaved in Egypt.
Their response, "na’aseh v’nishmah," ("we will do and we will hear") which appears in Parashat Mishpatim, now appears differently: na’aseh–we will do all the things to prepare, and we will define some basic values to be worthy of receiving God’s principles; nishma–we will hear God’s outpouring of moral content into the system that we establish, and it will provide principles, human values and laws which we will accept and obey.
A Human System
This justice system is a human one. It is predicated on basic ideas that enable us to function as a moral society. Its entirely human administration makes the system much more powerful, much more part of us, and even much more part of each person.
These are the standards that we should adopt for ourselves attempting to build a moral society. Humanity, in general, has experienced tremendous shocks recently–shocks that have raised basic questions about the way humanity should react. Have moral values collapsed, too, with the evil, animalistic behavior of some human beings, upheld of their own countries in the name of justice?
The order of our Torah portion gives us an answer in first establishing and accepting the idea of a society based on a justice system, and then filling it with details. We must not forget that our own social order is based on that first part of this Torah portion, before the Ten Commandments in their specificity are given. In not accepting the basic rule of law and the fundamental principle of human responsibility, we run the great risk of possibly destroying our entire society.
Even in our most difficult moments, we must be aware that supporting the justice system allows us to live a moral life. We must maintain it to be worthy of our relationship with God, and to be able to be inspired by God. That is the real meaning of the midrash (rabbinic interpretation) which says that all of Israel was at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given.