Moshe shows us how we can avoid being too litigious

Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:1-3:22
Haftorah: Isaiah 1:1-27

In the words of Billy Shears, the fictional character of Beatles fame, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” We all need help sometimes, even great and experienced leaders like Moshe. Thanks to his father-law, Yitro, Moshe was able to get some assistance. But how much could one person need?

In the book of Exodus, Yitro meets up with the Jewish People in the desert and finds his son-in-law inundated with the adjudication of legal disputes. Moshe sits as judge from morning until night. Concerned that Moshe is overwhelmed and that people are left waiting for him to settle the cases, Yitro suggests a system in which Moshe will be the lead judge over a tier of lesser judges, who in turn will be above courts lower than theirs, etc. Very efficient.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moshe recounts the implementation of that system. “I spoke to you at that time saying, ‘I am unable to bear you by myself alone … How can I alone carry your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels? Provide for yourselves, distinguished people who are wise, understanding, and well known to your tribes, and I shall appoint them over you.’ … Heads for the thousands, heads for the hundreds, heads for the fifties, heads for the tens… And I charged your judges at that time and said: ‘Hear the causes between your brethren and judge righteously…'” (1:9-1:16).

It all sounds reasonable, and he recalls that the people took well to the system. However, isn’t there a bit of overkill in having one judge for every 10 people? Yes, delegation is a good thing for busy leadership. But even if the stereotypical Jewish mother loves having a lawyer in the family, do we really need for 10 percent of every graduating high school class to head into the judiciary?

Further, a sensitive reader will note that in telling the story Moshe fails to mention Yitro at all. How could he publicly discuss this great organizational advance without even mentioning the dear family member who saved him by suggesting it?

Looking carefully at Moshe’s wording and tone, Seforno suggests (commentary on verse 12) that the Jewish People did in fact need one judge for every 10 people at that time. With our greater concerns relieved by a promise of successful entry into the land of Israel, we began fighting with one another over so many petty things that a huge rise in the number of available judges was needed — adjudicators “for the tens.” This is what Moshe meant when he said that he was unable to bear our contentious quarrels.

The Seforno’s commentary may also explain the omission of Yitro’s name, as there may have really been two aspects to this plan. Yitro’s primary concern was one of efficiency. He couldn’t bear to see the wasted time, that of Moshe or that of the people. For that he gains honorable mention earlier in the Torah text.

Yet in his farewell speech to the Children of Israel, Moshe is focused more on lessons to be learned as he sends them off. Creating a tiered judiciary in which only legally complicated cases rise to the top allows the people to begin to recognize which sorts of cases and concerns belong on the level of the supreme court and which ones do not.

Sometimes a case is simply petty, or of an obvious “open and shut” nature, and only ends up before a judge because it is pushed there by a litigant. Having a system of lower courts created a gentle reminder that not every perceived wrong is actually worthy of pursuit and certainly not to be taken as far as it can go — all the way to Moshe.

King Shlomo the wise wrote, “Every way of a person is straight in their eyes”(Proverbs 21:2). It is human nature to believe that we are right, that our cause is just, that it is the other person’s fault.

But is it really true? Is it possible that, like the Jews in the desert, we are being petty, and that we are making a case for the high court out of small things? Admitting that we might be wrong — like recognizing that our concern is not actually such a big deal — is very difficult. But in actively pursuing the smaller issues, we distract ourselves from true leadership and burden the communities in which we participate.

Indeed, there are bound to be greater causes that need our attention and energies.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Oakland’s Beth Jacob. He can be reached at [email protected] .