Naomi Graetz

Laws for Lawless Leaders: Mishpatim

It always seems like such a letdown, that after parshat Yitro, when we had the grandiose description of the nation receiving the Ten Commandments, that suddenly we have to read the “boring” chapter of Mishpatim. I always wondered why the narrator inserted this chapter here. One suggestion which I always loved to hear was that after pyrotechnics, you have to get down to earth and run the country so you need laws.  But last Shabbat, during our discussion in our kehillah, it occurred to me that there might be another reason.  Yitro told Moses how to run the nation. Pay attention to his words and then see what Moses actually did:

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and 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. You shall also seek out, from among all the people, capable individuals who fear God—trustworthy ones who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major matter (davar) to you, but let them decide every minor matter themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.” Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said:

Moses chose capable individuals out of all Israel, and appointed them heads over the people—chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens; and they judged the people at all times: the difficult matters they would bring to Moses, and all the minor matters they would decide themselves.

First of all, we must notice that Yitro suggested god-fearing individuals without specifying that they come from Israel.  Did he want to avoid nepotism? Did the narrator shorten what Moses actually did for the sake of brevity? Or did Moses choose individuals out of all Israel who were not necessarily God-fearing, or trustworthy or who spurned ill-gotten gain?  And perhaps he knew his people—they were “in his pocket” so to speak. Perhaps it didn’t matter to Moses since the new heads and chiefs would only be deciding “minor matters”. Or perhaps, the pool of trust-worthy people who could be leaders at this point in the history of the nation was infinitesimal. Also was Yitro only concerned about “disputes”?

A friend of mine, an American judge, wrote to me that:

 “Moses deviates from Yitro’s advice as he does not take cases because they were [major] גדול but because they were קשה [hard cases]. I have often spoken on the importance of every case to the litigants-and all are equally important to them without regard to how much money might be involved. Thus, Moses correctly determined that it was his responsibility to take the difficult cases without regard to how “large” they might be, because of how much money might be involved or the identity of the litigants. The “smaller” cases are for the lower courts because they are less difficult to decide.”

After reading what he wrote, I thought, that what is equally important is the nitty gritty of how to determine [and who is to determine] what is big and what is small? It is true we have the 10 commandments/sayings (davar), but they are general guidelines and certainly address major matters such as murder, theft, adultery etc. We still need to have laws and guidelines for everyday misdemeanors. Enter parshat mishpatim!


The placement of this parsha is clear. Bringing us down to earth (from Mt. Sinai to practicalities). The order of the subject matter is also interesting: First things first: the limitations on the length of slavery. This must have spoken to the people who had just been released from years of slavery. The institution of slavery will continue, but it will not be endless. And if a slave is stupid enough to refuse freedom, he will remain enslaved forever (Exodus 21:2-6).  After this, there is a law about a man who kills another man—the law for him is a death penalty. Was this a hint to Moses, about what should have been done to him after killing the Egyptian taskmaster, and that was why he had run away? Then there is a death penalty for kidnapping, and then selling the person who was taken–a lesson for today’s kidnappers and traffickers. There are many laws having to do with destruction of property or theft. Later on, we have laws protecting the poor and innocent from evil people who wish to take what is theirs. This is clearly not a minor matter, because God hears the voices of the oppressed and he will track down those who cheat:

If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans (Exodus 22:22-23).

Right after these stern words we are told not to curse God: “You shall not revile God, nor put a curse upon a chieftain (נשיא) among your people” (vs.27). But what if the chieftain was guilty of cheating the poor; of taking advantage of the misery of his countrymen for his own self-aggrandizement? And is the נשיא above the law? Is he to be likened to God?


I try to read biblical text with what is known as a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”  At the end of all of these laws, the people vote unanimously to accept all of God’s words and laws:

Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of God and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that God has commanded we will do!” (Exodus 24:3),

I wonder about this: Were they under a spell? Surely, there was some dissent. There is no such thing as 100% agreement. Even in Russia or Iran, there is 99.5%!

At the beginning of chapter 23 we are told to “stay far away from falsehood.”  Today this seems to be an impossibility with all of the fake news around us. How do we determine whose narrative is correct? For instance, in Israel there is a big conflict between those who would do everything to save the kidnapped hostages before it is too late, and even among the relatives of these hostages, there is a vocal minority saying that we have to eliminate Hamas even if it will be at the expense of the hostages.

Needless to say, depending on your position, you can choose the narrative you want to support.  There are those who argue that even the bystanders in Gaza are guilty—that there are no innocents among them, and those who are now passing around videos of Gazans who are crying death to Hamas for causing all of our suffering.  Can we separate truth from falsehood?


And then there are the consummate liars; whose words one should never trust; words like “total victory is within touching distance and will be achieved within months”; or “the abductees are always in front of me and I will never stop working for their release.” Some of these pathological deceivers are planning to run or stay in high office, even while they are being prosecuted. Yet they are believed and venerated as they spout their lies. In this same verse, we are told not to spread false rumors. But with today’s social media this is impossible to prevent. It would seem that we have to live with the lies—even though the bible is quite clear about this:

You must not carry false rumors/stay away from falsehood; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness:  You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty— nor shall you show deference to a poor person in a dispute (Exodus 23:1-3).

Supposedly those in charge of keeping the law will be impartial; on the other hand, in reality the most sinned against and gullible population will be the “unwashed poor.”

The role of government and the goal of leaders and lawgivers should be to preserve the greater good. If they are not doing that, they don’t belong in the business of government and leadership. If their citizens’ quality of life deteriorates under their watch, it is their responsibility. Moses himself questioned and opposed God over this issue and tried to get out of being a leader, because he felt he wasn’t doing his job. God had told him to negotiate with Pharaoh and in the aftermath, the Israelites’ situation got much worse. When the people confronted him, they said:

“May God look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.” Then Moses returned to God and said, “O my lord, why did You harm this people? Is that why you sent me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people” (Exodus 5:21-23).

Moses was ready to step down when he realized that he would be carrying out orders that would hurt his people. He knew that leaders who cause harm to their people should step down. And even though it was God calling the shots, it was Moses who realized that his leadership was harming the people. As always, God convinced Moses to stay on. But at least he tried to do the decent and correct thing: namely, to step down when his leadership was harming the population. Would that our leaders were willing to admit to their failures and step down from the halls of power.

Shabbat shalom

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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