Parashat Yitro 5777

Rabbi Danny Rich, 17 February 2017


For nearly two decades I was the congregational rabbi to the Kingston Liberal Synagogue, and, despite loving my current post as Liberal Judaism’s senior Rabbi and Chief Executive, I am still at heart a congregational rabbi who wants to share with families the ups and downs, the joys and sadnesses, the success and disappointments of life. I try to keep my hand in where possible but the demands of the ‘day job’ often frustrate such opportunities.

Unusually, however, last week I officiated at three funerals in as many days. These funerals were for two wives and a husband, and, in addition to children, each left a mark for their service to others in the community; one for helping neighbours, another as a nurse and the third as a local councillor.

Liberal Judaism offers its members (and indeed non-members) the choice of cremation or burial at one of its two cemeteries, Edgwarebury or Cheshunt. The service – taken in a personal and thoughtful manner by a Liberal rabbi – is a simple but dignified one and includes these words:

Al m’komo yavo v’shalom: May (s)he come to his/her rest in peace

This phrase is found in this week’s parashah Yitro at Exodus 18:23. Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23) is named after Moses’ father-in-law, the Midianite priest. It is perhaps best known because it includes the first version of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-14) which serve as the constitution of the Children of Israel. The slaves and others who escaped from Egypt are a rather mixed and rebellious bunch and, with Divine wisdom, God offers them a founding document of peoplehood which seeks to express in general terms the basic principles upon which their society is to be established.

The Ten Commandments, in common with any attempt to offer a concise expression of the rules of a club, require interpretation, amplification and even amendment as circumstances change. Parashat Yitro describes such circumstances in which Yitro observes that Moses is being overwhelmed by the issues and problems which the people are bringing to him upon which he is required to arbitrate upon. Yitro suggests that the burden is simply too great for one person to bear and advises Moses to choose a group of trustworthy people to share leadership with him – a cadre of professional judges. These arbiters are to be ‘capable’ which the medieval exegete Rashi understands as ‘immune to bribes’ and to ‘fear God’ which the contemporary Ibn Ezra interprets as ‘with the capacity to do what is right rather than what is popular’.

As we turn from the Hebrew Bible and the great generation of Biblical scholars of the ilk of Rashi and Ibn Ezra to the modern period our media is filled with the beginnings of the Presidency of Donald Trump and closer to home the implications of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union. Commentators have suggested that there is a link between the two, and I want to note one common but worrying feature of some of those who supported ‘Brexit’ and some advocates of Donald Trump – namely a disdain for an independent judiciary when it appears to frustrate ‘the will of the people’. When English Appeal Court judges decided that the decision to leave the European Union needed parliamentary sanction and when an American federal judge ruled against Trump’s targeted immigration ban the condemnation of judges was swift and concerning for those who believe that an independent judiciary is a necessary part of democracy even if it slows the implementation of the perceived will of the people.

In his commentary on Exodus 18:23 Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that:

It does not say ‘el m’komo’ but ‘al m’komo’: not that people will have a peaceful homecoming, but that each and every person will be set in the place or position where he ought to be.
This precisely is the main object of the work of a judge – namely to direct everyone and everything to the place or position where they ought to be, to bring them there, and establish them there securely.

This is equally true of the modern judge. It is not a judicial task to give everybody a peaceful homecoming which might make the judge popular but rather to interpret the law without fear or favour which may, from time to time, mean putting an outspoken politician or even a President of the United States in his proper place!

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