The Key Is Justice for the Poor

It came about on the next day that Moses sat down to judge the people, and the people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw what he was doing to the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit by yourself, while all the people stand before you from morning till evening?” [Exodus 18:13-14]

Jethro was an outsider. He was the high priest of Midian, a former adviser to Pharaoh who dared to oppose the emperor’s plan to destroy the Jews. He bucked all convention by accepting and giving his daughter to Moses, then a fugitive and an unknown. Jethro heard of the divine miracles for the Children of Israel and wanted in.

But when he toured the encampment near Mount Sinai, Jethro was disturbed. There was his son-in-law, adjudicating cases for hours. The line of litigants was long. They were said to have been members of the so-called mixed multitude, or gentiles who left Egypt to join the Jewish nation in their trek toward the Land of Caanan.

Hezekiah bar Manoah, the 13th Century commentator known as Hizkuni, quoted the views of some of his colleagues that the Egyptian exiles were demanding the return of the gold, silver and other valuables “borrowed” by the Israelites on the eve of their departure. In response, the Jews argued that the gold and silver were meant to compensate for their leaving houses and fields in Egypt, taken by their neighbors.

This would explain Jethro’s question: Why are you alone in administering justice to the mixed multitude? The number of litigants requires more than just you. They have also stood out in the desert sun for hours. Is that justice?

Moses responded that this was not his decision. The former Egyptians wanted him to judge their claims. Perhaps it was because Moses was one of the few who did not ask for the valuables of their neighbors back in Egypt. The Egyptians felt there would be no conflict of interest. Perhaps, it was just that Moses was seen as a servant of G-d. In any case, the mixed multitude, many of whom had already converted to Judaism, were learning the Torah. They needed immediate attention.

Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

Jethro found a solution. Moses would groom the mixed multitude to respect and honor G-d’s commandments. Then, he would seek the most devout to become judges. The candidates would have to be financially independent so they would be immune to bribes. They must also fear G-d, be honest and hate monetary gain. Then, Moses would set up courts for communities of thousands, hundreds, 50 and even 10. Issues that could not be settled by the lower courts would be addressed at the higher levels. There would be no long lines anywhere in this justice system.

Moses chose men of substance out of all Israel and appointed them as heads of the people, leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens.

Notice, the Torah does not use the word “people,” as Jethro did, in describing the judges. The implication is that Moses did look for potential jurists among the mixed multitude but could not find any. So, the Israelites became the judges over the former Egyptians.

Jethro’s point was that the poor need an honest judicial system far more than the rich. Indeed, in the months after they left Egypt, the Israelites probably got along famously. They were laden with gold and silver, so money was not an issue. If there was a dispute, they had the luxury of settling it through arbitration. The poor, however, needed the protection of Moses.

And that is the Torah way: the training of the best, honest, courageous and pious to carry out G-d’s law. The judges are forbidden from bowing to anybody — even the king. He cannot place himself in even the slightest conflict of interest. The Talmud brings numerous examples of judges who excused themselves because one of the litigants greeted them outside the courtroom. They did their job with trepidation, fearing that they would favor the strong over the weak or the rich over the poor — or vice versa.

In all the recent hoopla over the judicial system in the State of Israel, none of these requirements have been mentioned. Moses the prophet and leader did not appoint today’s judges. They were appointed by themselves and their friends. The system is weighed heavily against the poor simply because the state can appeal anytime it likes. The poor and even middle-income Israeli cannot afford to sustain litigation.

Moreover, cases that are uncomfortable to the state are delayed for years if not decades. In other cases, the Supreme Court simply does not implement its own decisions.

The most glaring omission is the official state of emergency that exists nearly 75 years after the founding of Israel. The Emergency Regulations, enacted by the British in 1945, marks a tool used often by the state to deny civil rights, impose censorship, imprison people without charges or trial and justify torture, expulsion and closure of entire areas. In January 2023, the Knesset extended the regulations for five years in the West Bank.

The Supreme Court, which struck down numerous bills passed by the Knesset, has never touched the Emergency Regulations. Why? Because this would remove the most potent legal tool of the regime — the ability to suspend democracy and civil rights at any time. It could be used to justify the life sentencing of a young Jew, Amiram Ben-Uliel, charged with killing three Palestinians in 2015 based solely on his confession elicited by torture.

How does this meet the criteria of a Jewish state? Former Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinisch answered that question in March 2022. Beinisch said the people of Israel accepted a “Jewish state whatever it means” and a “democratic state whatever it means.” But what was clear to the founding fathers, she said, was that the law would not be based on the Torah. This was a Zionist state, and the court’s job is to “implement certain values that represent our democracy.”

“The law in the country is a secular law,” Beinisch said. [1]

Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz was the rabbi of Prague from 1604 to 1619 and wrote a commentary on the Torah called Keli Yakar, or “precious vessel.” He wrote that the long passage of Jethro and his role in establishing the Israelite judicial system was meant for future generations. The fate of the Jewish people would depend on the honesty and piety of their judges. Without justice, Israel would return to exile and be judged by their gentile oppressors.

“Every private person will sit in peace under his vine and fig tree when there is law below and peace in Israel,” the Kli Yakar said. [2]


1. Beinisch in “Courting Controversy: The Challenges Facing Israel’s Supreme Court.”

2. Keli Yakar. Exodus 18:23

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.