In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses, have escaped from Egyptian slavery, crossed the Red Sea and are beginning their journey to the Promised Land. Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, has heard about the events that took place, and travels from his home in Midian to meet up with Moses in the Wilderness. Jethro brings Moses’s wife and children, and the family is reunited. Jethro congratulates Moses on the victory and offers up a blessing to God on behalf of the Israelites.
The next day, its business as usual, and, as the text describes, Moses takes his position at the head of the community to adjudicate the disputes of the Israelites:
Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Exodus 18:13-18)
Jethro then advises Moses to set up a system of system of judges wherein selected leaders would be placed over smaller groups of people, “over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens,” with each leader handling the disputes of the group that they are overseeing. Larger disputes make their way up the chain, and Moses is left just handling the most important and difficult cases.
It is a system of jurisprudence that is familiar to us, with lower courts handling local disputes with the ability to appeal to higher courts as necessary.
This story of Jethro is taken to teach the importance not only of having an orderly court system, but to have an organized system of leadership in general. Moses running the entire community by himself was not sustainable neither for him nor for the people. We recognize the need to have institutions of government in order to facilitate community and ensure that everyone’s needs are met.
But Jethro has another lesson for Moses. For before advising Moses to set up the system of leaders he says to him, “enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.” (Exodus 18:20)
In other words, Jethro says before you set up a system of judges, make sure the people themselves know the law and what is expected of them as members of the community. A successful system, therefore, is one that not only relies on a functional system of government but on an active and engaged citizenry.
Earlier this week I sat on a panel at The Evergreen State College on the subject of religious liberty and specifically how it relates to the LGBTQ community. I represented a faith community perspective in a wide ranging conversation in which we talked about law, discrimination and the Constitution, circling around the Arlene’s Flowers case, in which a florist was sued for discrimination for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding claiming it violated her religious beliefs. (The Washington Supreme Court unanimously decided against her on Thursday.)
During my opening remarks, I cited the famous letter from George Washington to the Jewish community in Newport, RI in 1790, which has become a sacred text to the American Jewish community. In that letter, a response from Washington to a letter of congratulations sent to him by the congregation on the occasion of his inauguration, he writes,
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
I’ve always knew this letter to be an affirmation of religious liberty, especially important to a minority faith community wary perhaps of its position in this new country. But in reading it again we see that while Washington affirms those rights, he also notes that at the same time in order for those rights to be guaranteed, those who live by them should behave as “good citizens.”
From Jethro to George Washington the message is that while we have leaders and guides, the obligation rests on us to know what is expected of us and to behave accordingly.
We are responsible for our civic lives, needing to be educated in our laws, our rights and responsibilities and to conduct ourselves in such a way that we not only exercise them for ourselves but guarantee them for others. Courts can serve as a correction when things go wrong, but the onus is on us to treat everyone fairly.
And we are responsible for our own spiritual lives, needing to be educated in our traditions, texts and practices and to find our place within them in order to live out our values and convictions. We can find others who serve as teachers and guides, but we can not expect others to do it for us.
In both instances, we ourselves are expected to “know the way we are to go.”