Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Parshas Yistro, Jimmy Hoffa and Natural law

As we enter into Parshas Yistro, I would like to draw attention to some of our verses, specifically the verses from Shemos:13–23 and 20:1-13. These verses will thematically deal with both leadership and legislation.

Beginning in Shemos:13-23, Moshe Rabenu, or Great Teacher and Leader, is being challenged on some fundamental issues relevant to his leadership. Jethro is impressed by Moses but knows that even Moses is not perfect. Moses has room for improvement.

Jethro suggests to Moses that Moses must take a step back and put some of his faith in the people around him. This is naturally challenging for many leadership personalities. It can also be a flaw and lead to leadership failures. However, as we read in the third Aliyah, Moses will listen to his father-in-law. He will put his faith in the people around him.

Let us meditate on this for a moment. What does it mean for our leadership to listen to the people around us? How might it be difficult for a leader to take a step back? Many of us may be able to think back to examples in our own lives when we started a project or initiative. The projects and initiatives became successful, and we do not want to take a step back. They seem to become our own children. But inevitably, we need to trust the people around us to see their successes. I believe these verses are speaking to this experience.

To give an example, many of us here may have seen the film, The Irishman by Martin Scorsese, released earlier last year. Some of us may also remember the events retold in the motion picture. For much of the 1950s and 1960s, Jimmy Hoffa cultivated and developed the Teamsters Union we know today. He eventually left his leadership role to serve almost five years in federal prison for corruption. Upon his release, he unsuccessfully tried to reestablish himself to his former leadership capacities.

Hoffa could not take a step back. Somewhere, the Teamsters became his baby. He did not listen to the people around him. The authorities, union members, and even nefarious mafia contacts told him to take a step back or leave the organization. But at a certain point, he believed he was the Teamsters Union. But he wasn’t. His child, the Teamsters Union, was out of his house, which was fundamentally hard for him.

Sometimes, we need to listen to the people around us. The hardest advice comes to us when we are leaders. No less easy is receiving this advice from a father- or mother-in-law. But we must listen and act when appropriate. Sometimes, we need to know when to let go of some of our responsibilities. It is not easy, but sometimes it is necessary.  It is important for us to meditate on these thoughts upon leadership as we read this week’s parsha.

But our parsha has yet more to offer us. Shemos 20:1-13, includes the Decalogue, the “big ten” commandments. The Decalogue will recount to the Israelites that our G-d led us out of Egypt, and it commands us to prohibit idolatry, murder, theft, adultery, saying G-d’s name in vain, coveting thy neighbor, or bearing false witness. Meanwhile, the Sabbath and honoring one’s mother and father appear not as prohibitions but as positive acts that are commanded upon us.

The Decalogue and its variants in the Christian tradition have found their way into our schools and our courtrooms, on our money, and even on some flags and monuments. I have long wondered, “why these 10?” Recall from Rabbi Akiva, “Amar Rabi Akiva, V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, Zeh Klal Gadol Batorah.” Rabbi Akiva said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus s 19:18). This is the essential principle of the Torah. So, why then do we focus so heavily on the Decalogue in our culture and society, rather than on this verse by Rabbi Akiva?

I pondered this question over this week and came to my own conclusion. Legal theory includes something known as natural law, which is the notion that a body of unchanging ethical principles exists for all human moral conduct. The premise is that we are endowed by a natural set of statutes for right and wrong. Rabbi Akiva’s statement may suggest we are naturally endowed with these abilities. If the essential principle of the Torah is to love thy neighbor as thyself, then other statutes such as honoring thy father and mother may be presupposed as natural.

However, I would suggest that there is no such thing as natural law. The theory of natural law has grown unpopular among legal theorists. Just look at the various contradictions in state laws as to what may constitute murder or manslaughter. Each degree is a perfect example that challenges the notion of natural law.

We need the Decalogue for this reason. It sets us up with a clear vision. It may not be the full 613 mitzvos, but it is a good start. We need statutes, we need laws, and we need to live by them. I put my faith not only in the kindness shown to and from my neighbor but also in us mutually living by the statutes of law.

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently living in Cincinnati, he is finishing up his studies at HUC-JIR, while serving as the rabbinic intern of Adath Israel and as the student rabbi of Beth Boruk Temple.