The people have not long been out of Egypt when Moses’ father-in-law Jethro comes to the camp with Tziporah and the children, Gershom and Eliezer. On only the second day of his arrival, Jethro sits down with Moses and gives him some fatherly advice on how to govern this new and uncertain nation. “You must seek out from among all the people capable, God-fearing men–men of truth, who hate injustice. You must then appoint them over the people as leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens, ” he says. He goes on to say how these leaders should administer justice, reserving only the major cases for Moses to deal with. This is brilliant, superb. It is such a simple solution to the pressing challenge of instituting a system of government. It is not democratic, as we understand it today, but it decentralises power and localises it at several levels. What is more, the advice, which Moses immediately implements, comes not from God directly, nor from a fellow Israelite, but from a Midianite chief. Moses clearly made a wise choice of wife and father-in-law.
Almost immediately afterwards, God pronounces the Ten Commandments, bringing us to Mishpatim, which continues the theme through an amazingly rapid succession of laws covering slavery, manslaughter, murder, kidnapping, accidents caused by (criminal) negligence, theft, seduction, loans, the fair administration of justice, festivals and more. It appears that God wishes to set up as many ground rules as possible right from the start so that the people begin their new life with an already workable social, legal and moral code. What a wise old Torah we have!
All this sounds matter-of-fact, but we should not ignore the sacred, even mystical dimension to the story made manifest in the manner of communication of the new laws. The people are placed in awe of God as they stand at the foot of Mount Sinai, observe the fire and smoke, hear the thunder and feel the vibrations caused by God’s presence. Meanwhile, Moses ascends, descends, ascends again with seventy of the elders, who have a vision of God, before Moses and Joshua climb even higher. The stage is set for more Torah.
Come along this Saturday at 10:30 to be, yourselves, enlightened along with the remnant of Israel in Cornwall. Harvey Kurzfield will be directing our gaze and our voices.