In this week’s parsha, we read about Yitro, priest of Midian and Moses’ father-in-law. Yitro has heard about what has happened — that Israel has been freed from Egypt — and he comes to the Israelite camp, bringing Moses’ wife and sons with him. Yitro rejoices at Israel’s rescue and acknowledges the greatness of God.
After greetings and celebrations, Yitro sees large numbers of people bringing their disputes to Moses. He tells his son-in-law that it is not good for him or for the people for him to act alone, trying to handle and solve every minor and major problem that arises. Yitro then advises Moses to appoint officers and judges to help him lead the people. Yitro says, “You shall seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain.”
Yitro’s criteria for leadership are excellent; he urges Moses to select:
• “From among all the people” — not just elders, not just members of a particular tribe or family or social class. He should make his choices based on character rather than status.
• “Capable men” — According to Rashi, this refers to men of sufficient wealth that they will not be tempted by bribes or the need to curry favor with the rich.
• “Men who fear God” — those who will follow God’s laws and will not be swayed by flattery or threats.
• “Trustworthy men” — those who are known to be bound by their word and so will be respected by the people.
• “Those who spurn ill-gotten gain” — who value justice more than money.
Once he has found such men, Yitro tells Moses, “Let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves.”
Moses follows this advice and then, the Torah says, “the difficult matters they would bring to Moses, and all the minor matters they would decide themselves.”
There’s an obvious difference between Yitro’s prescription and the Torah’s report of what was actually done. Yitro advised that Moses should decide kol hadavar hagadol, every great matter, but, in actuality, what Moses judged was hadavar hakashe, every difficult matter.
Rabbi Hayyim Berlin, rabbi of Moscow in the late 19th century, explained the difference this way:
In other nations, the importance of a case is dependent on the amount of money involved, with litigation involving “great” amounts assigned to a higher court of justice. In Jewish religious law, the amount of money involved in a dispute is of no concern, for “the law concerning one penny is the same as that concerning 100 maneh.” The importance of the case is determined by its difficulty. More complex questions are referred to judges more learned than those qualified to render judgment in less complicated cases.
The objective of the system laid out here is equal justice for all — rich or poor, important or ordinary. Later in the Torah, we will read admonitions to judges to favor neither rich nor poor in spite of temptations to do one or the other.
One of the “seven laws of the children of Noah,” laws that apply to all humanity, is to establish a system of courts to ensure justice. Quite simply, everyone, no matter his or her circumstances, is entitled to justice.