“And when the father-in-law of Moshe saw all that he did with the nation, he said, ‘what is this thing which you do with the people? Why do you sit alone, with all of the nation surrounding you from morning to evening?’ And Moshe said to his father-in-law, ‘because the nation comes to me to inquire of G-d. Because when they have an argument they come to me, and I judge between a man and his friend, and I teach them the statutes of G-d and His laws.” [18:14-16]
The Drash V’HaIyun takes note of an unfortunate truth: all too many people are very careful when it comes to matters between man and G-d (“ritual laws”), while simultaneously they are lax with interpersonal laws. They go running to the Rabbi to ask if a chicken is treif, but they never seem to have questions about cases of possible theft, price-gouging, or other financial matters.
When do they take money questions to the Rabbi? Only after a fight has broken out! Only then do they go… to haul the other party into Rabbinical Court. If everyone were as careful with other people’s money as they were with other rules and prohibitions, and they would come in advance with their questions in these areas, then they would greatly reduce the number of Court cases – and the rabbis would be spared much time and effort.
The Drash V’HaIyun sees a hint to this phenomenon in our reading, in Moshe’s apparently redundant response: “because the nation comes to me to inquire of G-d – because when they have an argument they come to me…” According to his interpretation, when Yisro asks Moshe why there are so many judgments and arguments between people, Moshe explains that people conduct themselves differently within these two areas of Jewish law. When it comes to matters between man and G-d, they come first to ask questions: “because the nation comes to me to inquire of G-d.” But when it is an interpersonal matter, they wait until “they have an argument,” and only after it has broken out do “they come to me” – to have the other party brought to Rabbinical Court!
One of our readers, a woman who is only partially observant of Jewish law herself, defended the endless inquiry of many of her fellow Jews into “ritual laws” – because, she said, unlike interpersonal laws, those between man and G-d are not easily given over to common-sense interpretation. While “do not murder” is fairly clear, even as simple an act as lighting a Menorah on Chanukah has countless details. How many candles we light each night, on which side we add new candles, on which side we begin to light… all of these are spelled out in Halacha with many other regulations. This is very true, and Torah sources themselves distinguish between “chukim,” Torah laws which we may not even comprehend, and “mishpatim,” laws which all people recognize are necessary (in whatever form) to maintain an orderly society.
But precisely because these interpersonal laws are logical, they offer a trap: we think we know the answers. We assume that we know for ourselves what we are permitted to do, and what is forbidden. In reality, there are difficult cases, and more frequent cases where we are unable to see the obvious for ourselves: if “bribery blinds the eyes of the wise” [Deut. 16:19], how can we expect to judge fairly when our own money is at stake? These are the times when we most need knowledgeable and unbiased advice.
This applies to completely honest and upright individuals. Although the Drash V’HaIyun is indeed offering a “Drash,” an additional, hinted concept which goes beyond the simple reading of the verses, it is noteworthy nonetheless that this passage concerns the “Sinai Generation” – those who experienced the parting of the Sea and constant miracles in the desert, who were at that point on a very high spiritual level.
If we look within ourselves, we will certainly find symptoms of this sort of problem. Let us learn to know what we don’t know – and ask before we stumble!
Rabbi Yaakov Menken