Judging for Peace by Benjamin Book


Parashat Yitro is a Parashah of both spiritual and physical enlightenment. In the beginning of the Parashah, Yitro comes to Bnei Yisrael and sees how Moshe is judging the nation. He notices not only that Moshe is by himself—which is taxing for Moshe and inefficient—but also that the system is bad for the nation as a whole. The Pasuk writes, “Lo Tov HaDavar Asheir Atah Oseh. Navol Tibol Gam Atah Gam HaAm HaZeh Asher Imach,” “The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out—you as well as this people that is with you” (Shemot 18:17-18). Essentially, Yitro believes that this method is harmful both for Moshe and the people.

But what is so bad about judging the people alone? Rav Jonathan Sacks points out that this is the second time in the Torah where the words, “Lo Tov” are used. The first time is in Parashat BeReishit, where Hashem says, “Lo Tov Heyot HaAdam Levado; E’eseh Lo Eizer KeNegdo,” “It is not good that man be alone; I will make him a helper corresponding to him” (BeReishit 2:18). Hashem feels that man needs a wife with which to share his responsibilities. Another proof of this idea is that the word “Chayim,” which means “life,” is written in plural form, showing that one should not live one’s life alone, but share it with others. Yitro is teaching Moshe this lesson—that he should not be alone when judging the nation.

        The Netziv raises the following question: it’s easy to understand how Yitro’s advice helped Moshe, because Moshe could not handle all the work alone. What is difficult to understand is Yitro’s final comment, “VeGam Kol HaAm HaZeh Al Mekomo Yavo VeShalom” “And this entire people, as well, shall arrive at its destination in peace” (Shemot 18:23). The people weren’t exhausted like Moshe was, so how do they benefit by accepting Yitro’s judicial court system?

Quoting a Gemara (Sanhedrin 6a) which discusses a Pesharah, or compromise, the Netziv answers his question. Every judge has the ability to find a compromise to which both sides agree and will maintain peace between the two sides. However, the Gemara grapples with the issue if Pesharah is a good thing or not. Rabi Eliezer Ben Rabi Yossi HaGelili says that it’s forbidden to compromise in judgment; rather, a judge must choose who is Halachically correct. This is what Moshe did. Rabi Yehudah Ben Korcha, however, follows in the footsteps of Aharon, who would always strive for peace, and therefore said that one should try to make a Pesharah if possible.

How does one find a balance between strict justice and peace? The Netziv concludes that the balance is a Pesharah. Thus, he points out that the reason the Gemara said that Moshe preferred strict judgment over peace was because he knew instantly which side was guilty and which was innocent. It was therefore impossible for him to mediate. Hence, Yitro’s suggestion was to bring ordinary but righteous people to judge so that they would be able to hear both sides and find a compromise between them. That is why the appointment of judges not only helped Moshe, but also helped the nation to “arrive at its destination in peace.”

We can learn an important lesson from the idea that we can’t live or lead alone. Judaism isn’t faith of an individual alone; it’s about families, communities, and ultimately a nation in which every single one of us has a role to play that is crucial to our existence. Yitro was suggesting that there was something that ordinary individuals could achieve that even Moshe could not—compromise between individuals, which ultimately leads to peace.

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