September 24, 2018

Small Claims Court — comments on Torah Portion Yitro

Reflections on the Weekly Torah Portion – Yitro

Small Claims Court

The Israelites are out of Egypt, and have arrived at Mt. Sinai, awaiting the Revelation. The need for justice can't seem to wait. The Torah does not tell us what the disputes were about, but it seems that as soon as they made camp, people lined up to have their legal cases settled. Moses was adjudicating cases from morning until night.

Moses's father -in -law asks him what is going on. Taking a break from the bench, Moses informs his father -in -law that people are coming to him to inquire of God. They present their cases, and Moses judges between them, and makes known to them God's statutes and teachings. In other words, he is not just deciding cases, he is explaining the law to the people.

Pause here and think how significant this is. One thing that defines a corrupt or tyrannical regime (or both together) is the often-arbitrary nature of legal decision-making. Judges often decide by what the leader or party wants, who is offering the most persuasive bribe, the class, race or religion of the litigants. The notion that just law decides the case is often laughable. Law is a ruse.

In our imaging of Egypt, the archetype of Egypt, there was no rule of law. The whims and fancies of Pharaoh were the law. People are born with an inner sense of rationality and right and wrong, so they were probably furious inside when unfairness hit them like a sledgehammer.

The physical survival of the people has been the theme so far: fighting for freedom, fighting off Amalek, getting the people food and water. All good. What happens in the few lines of Exodus 18:13-26, though, is truly momentous. Moses is teaching that God is much more than a Man of War or Provider of Manna and Water. God is the cosmic source of justice and fairness. There actually are better and worse answers to these legal questions, and these answers are rooted in God.

The Hebrew word “making known” is crucial. The Hebrew word implies that Moses is not just telling them the law, but rather helping them know and understand the statutes and teachings of God. In today's parlance, he is empowering them with the ability to reason about legal and moral questions. Reasoning about justice and fairness is a way of knowing the mind of God.

I recently had to represent Ohr HaTorah at small claims court (yes, we won in the end. Justice prevailed. Rabbi takes a bow). It was a fascinating morning, actually quite moving. Citizens could come to a very informal setting, present their case and hopefully get justice. The cases ranged from the complex, to the outrageous, to the comical. (Did Moses have to take a laughing break now and then?). One thing troubled me, though. The judges sometimes did not render their decision in public; people were notified by mail instead. Even when they did render the judgment in the courtroom, the judges did not explain their reasoning. I get why. Even with deputy sheriffs in the room, a disgruntled citizen, who had hoped to be gruntled, might react in an explosive anger when the case did not go their way.

I imagined a small claims court where the judge did not have a room jam packed full of people waiting to have their cases heard, but rather had the leisure to instruct, in each case, the statutes and teachings of the law. To give each litigant a short course in the applicable area of civil law, not just what the decision is, but how the judge arrived at it. I can imagine the judge explaining his/her reasoning process, and allowing the citizens to question them – put the judge and law on trial, too.

Gratefully, most of us (baring the attorneys in our midst) are barely aware of the vast machinery of justice that undergirds our country, until we find ourselves in small claims court or in some larger civil matter. In such cases, we fervently hope (if we are in the right) that the judge is fair and discerning, and that the law is wise.

I can imagine the people, slaves all their lives, being electrified in hearing, that there is actually a fair as can be legal process set up. They came to realize that the God who redeemed them from Egypt, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with signs and wonders, did all of that, mostly for this: that free citizens could live under the rule of just law.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mordecai Finley