Recently we read in the Torah about Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who heard about the Jewish nation’s successful break out (with a lot of help from the Almighty). He decided it was time for Moses to reunite with his wife and kids, so they packed their bags and rode their donkeys from Midia over the desert to the Israeli encampment. Moses greeted them with a hug and a kiss and a feast, and then excused himself because he had a full schedule in the morning.
The next morning, Jethro woke up to see a column of people outside Moses’ tent. Having nothing better to do, he watched them as they waited. The average time within the Presence was about ten minutes, so he reckoned that the forty-seventh supplicant in line would be seeing the sun set before getting his turn, and only under the improbable condition that their leader would not be interrupted by any divine summons, Amalekite attacks or rebelling strikers. Some stood patiently in the sun, resigned to the inevitability of bureaucracy. They brought manna sandwiches and water-skins, an elderly lady had brought a stool. Those who had come to get their arguments settled continued to squabble as they waited. As every Jew has an opinion, the people nearest to them appointed themselves as lawyers and judges, resulting in noisy altercations and the occasional fist-fight, much to the entertainment of the spectators.
Somebody had worked out a number system, and an enterprising young man was making a good living by selling and bartering places in line. Jethro saw him bag a quail, some gold earrings and a date pie. One mother joined the queue with a wailing infant at her breast. When the petitioners could take it no longer, they pushed her to the front of the line. The baby miraculously stopped crying the moment she reached the tent flap, and Jethro noticed a smug grin half hidden by her veil.
The Midian Priest was surprised to see representatives of many different races, and discovered that although the escapees were mainly Jews, other nationals had taken advantage of Egypt’s open gates. These refugees sought asylum with the only non-repressive regime in the area, and were enjoying their first taste of freedom and justice.
Joshua, Moses’ loyal but over-wrought aide, was trying to keep order, and Jethro asked him what these people wanted from Moses. Joshua sighed deeply.
“Each one has a different issue. It could be a feud starting from when they went down to Egypt over 200 years ago, or a youth who fell in love with a damsel from another tribe. Maybe a query about how to keep their food hot over the Sabbath. Frankly, I think that after years of slavery, they just don’t know how to fill up their days, so they invent problems for Moses to solve.”
Jethro had not dragged Moses’ family all this way to find that Daddy had no time for them. He marched into the tent, and did his father-in-law thing.
“Moses, there’s no way you can keep this going. You’re exhausted, they’re exhausted, and you need to get a life. So this is what you’re going to do. You pick some good decent honest men. You teach them what to do and how the system works. Let them deal with the petty stuff, and they can come to you when they are stuck. Trust me, they will keep coming, but not to you.”
So Moses created local courts and regional courts and national courts and supreme courts, and the lines got lengthier and the people waited longer and the appointment system got more intricate and the laws obfuscated. And everyone complained, and promises were made and improvements suggested.
So when you get a parking ticket reminder, and you decide to challenge the fine in court, know that you are following a tradition that started with the Exodus itself. You will be assigned a date for the hearing – possibly over a year after the actual incident, and a time range which may start at 8.30 yet will include watching the sunset. You will be surrounded by appellants all as blameless as you, including one handcuffed to a police officer and another with a screaming baby at her breast (who will be dealt with first).
True, we have advanced somewhat. The judge might be a good decent honest woman. The long line outside might only be for the security check, after which you breathe air-conditioning. Joshua has been replaced with clerks, secretaries and guards, all loyal and over-wrought. But the people – they are the same, trying to beat the order, skip the lines, out-shout the opposition, fight bureaucracy – but some are there simply to see justice get done. And unbelievably, the system often does work.
Jethro is looking down benevolently and thinking, “I was the perfect father of law.”