Wednesday, October 16th | 17 Tishri 5780

February 15, 2017 7:57 am

Do We Seek Justice or Peace?

avatar by Jonathan Sacks

A Torah scroll. Photo:

A Torah scroll. Photo:

The parsha for Yitro, which contains the greatest Divine revelation in history (at Mount Sinai), begins on a note that is all too human.

Yitro, the priest of Midian, has come to see how his son-in-law Moses and the people he leads are faring. The parsha begins by telling us what Yitro heard (the details of the exodus and its attendant miracles), and goes on to describe what Yitro saw: Moses leading the people alone.

This caused Yitro a great deal of concern, and he said the following to Moses:

“What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Listen now to me and I will give you advice, and may God be with you. … Select capable men from all the people-men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain, and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.

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Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and so too all these people will reach their place in peace.” (Exodus 18:17-23)

Moses had to learn to delegate and share the burden of leadership.

Interestingly, the sentence, “What you are doing is not good (lo tov)” is one of only two places in the Torah where the phrase “not good” arises. The other (Genesis 2:18) reads,“It is not good for man to be alone.”

We cannot lead alone; we cannot live alone. That is one of the axioms of biblical anthropology.

Dean Inge once defined religion as “what an individual does with his own solitude.” That is not a Jewish thought. However, it was the great 19th century scholar the Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin) who made an unexpected, even counter-intuitive, observation on the passage from Yitro.

Netziv begins by quoting the Talmud (Sanhedrin 6a) about a decision on the part of a judge in a civil case to seek a solution based on equity rather than the strict application of the law. It is not wholly unlike mediation, in which the parties agree to a resolution that they both consider fair, regardless of whether or not it is based on a statute or precedent.

This is a mode of conflict resolution in which both sides gain — as opposed to the pure administration of justice, in which one side wins, and the other loses. The Talmud wants to know: Is this good or bad? Here is part of the debate:

Rabbi Eliezer, son of R. Jose the Galilean, said: it is forbidden to mediate . . . Instead, let the law pierce the mountain [a saying similar to: “Let the chips fall where they may”]. And so Moses’ motto was: ‘Let the law pierce the mountain.’ Aaron, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between people. . . R. Judah ben Korcha said … “Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates.” Surely where there is strict justice, there is no peace, and where there is peace, there is no strict justice. What then is the justice that coexists with peace? We must say: mediation.

The law says that it is permissible, even preferable, to mediate — with one proviso: that the judge does not yet know who is right and who is wrong. It is precisely this uncertainty at the early stages of a hearing that explains why an equitable resolution should be favored over a strictly legal one. If the judge has already reached a clear verdict, it would be a suppression of justice on his part to favor a compromise solution.

Ingeniously applying this principle to the Israelites in Moses’ day, the Netziv points out that — as the Talmud says — Moses preferred strict justice to peace. He was not a man to compromise or mediate. In addition, as the greatest of the prophets, he knew almost instantly which of the parties before him was innocent and which was guilty. It was therefore impossible for him to mediate.

By delegating the judicial function downward, Moses would bring ordinary people into the seat of judgment. They were able to propose equitable solutions precisely because they lacked Moses’ intuitive knowledge of law and justice.

What a profound idea this is. Moses was the Ish ha-Elokim (Psalm 90:1), the supreme man of God. Yet there was, the Netziv implies, one thing he could not do: bring peace between contending parties. The people, however, could create non-violent, non-coercive forms of conflict resolution. They had  to exercise patience. They had to listen to both sides. They had to arrive at an equitable verdict that both parties could see as fair. A mediator has different gifts from a prophet– more modest perhaps, but sometimes no less necessary.

A priest is not a prophet (though a few, like Samuel and Ezekiel, were both). A king needs different virtues than a saint. A military leader is not a man of peace (though he can become one later in life).

This parsha shows us the deep significance of the idea that we can neither live nor lead alone. Judaism is a social faith. It is about networks of relationship. It is about families, communities and ultimately a nation, in which each of us, great or small, has a role to play. That is why a nation is greater than any individual, and why each of us has something to give.

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