Yitro: standing in line for justice

standing in lineYitro’s advice to Moses was to make the law accessible to the people. We would do well to take that advice today.“You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times.” (Ex 18:21-22)

Something incredibly powerful just happened. As Yitro, Moses’ father in law, stepped forward to give Moses advice, there was a huge shift in the structure of the nascent Israelite society. Up until now, as we read in the verses just before, Moses had been the sole magistrate of the people. Everyone lined up to bring him their disputes, to know how the law that was given was to be applied.In one moment, Yitro not only saw the toll it was taking on Moses personally. He brought justice into the public access. Suddenly, more people were involved in the process, more people were invested in the process, and the community’s capacity for law and justice was expanded.

Building capacity for law and justice in a community is crucial, vital in fact, to its sustainability. When more people feel that they have access to the protections and application of a community’s just and righteous goals, they are that much more inclined to contribute.

In his commentary to verse 12, “and let them judge the people at all times”, Ramban (aka Nachmanides) of 13th century Spain, said the following, “If there are many judges, the one who is robbed can find a judge who will be ready to help him at any hour, something that is impossible as long as you are doing all the judging. Many of them, having no opportunity to bring their case before you, simply put up with the injustice done to them, being unwilling to leave their jobs or businesses for as long as it would take to wait for an audience.” (p 144 JPS Mikra’ot Gedolot) (emphasis mine)

How many people in our society today feel that they have no access to justice? That put up with their injustices because they can’t take off work, or can’t get childcare, or the line is too long, and the process too complicated. They are alienated from ever feeling like the justice system works for them. I don’t have to list here the implications of this – it permeates every area of our justice system, from immigration to criminal, injury and damages, even patents and trademarks. It costs too much to have one’s day in court any more, and so people just put up with the injustices.


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