Posts Tagged 'Tyranny'

Separation of Powers: The Wisdom of Yitro

In Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, the nation of Israel received the Torah. The Sinai experience, arguably the main event in our history, is introduced by and named for Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law. He did not just come to visit and bring his daughter and grandchildren back to Moshe. Yitro plays a critical role of giving Moshe the feedback on his leadership that he needed to hear. His critique seems to bring about the giving of the Torah. Right before revelation we read:

Next day, Moshe sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moshe from morning until evening. But when Moshe’s father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Moshe replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” And Moshe’s father-in-law said to him: ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. Hearken now to my voice, I will give you counsel, and God be with you: you will be for the people before God, and you will bring the causes to God.( Exodus 18: 13-19)

What is “not good” about what Moshe is doing?” Seeing Moshe working himself to the bone, Yitro gives him a plan to organize the adjudicating of the law. In order for them to keep the law they needed a system for teaching the people the law. It just was not efficient or efficacious for Moshe to be playing this role.

On another level Yitro is helping Moshe see that God’s law is just that God’s and not Moshe’s. It is noteworthy that in the Haftarah from Isaiah we see God alone sitting on God’s Throne. There we read:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of God’s robe filled the Temple. ( Isaiah 6:1)

The coupling of this Haftarah to Yitro underscores the notion that Moshe was never supposed to be construed of as God. It was not Moshe who was seated in judgement “from morning until evening”, but God alone.

On a third level we see Yitro’s critique as the birth of the separations of powers. One of the fundamental principles of the United States Constitution is the balance and separation of power among the three branches of the Government: the Legislative, the Executive branch, and the Judiciary. The distribution of power among the three branches is meant to ensure that no one branch of the government is able to gain a disproportionate amount of power over the other two. Each branch has separate and unique powers the others cannot impinge upon, but which are nonetheless subject to acceptance or rejection by the other two branches. This is how the balance of power is kept in check. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, wrote:

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands… may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny

Yitro’s message was one to preempt the tyranny of the Executive over the Judiciary.

Yitro’s message could not come at a better time. It is clear that Trump needs to understand that he is not his office and his office needs to be kept in check.

I often ponder what Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said to Dr. Robert Pollack. “If you know someone who says the Throne of God is empty, and lives with that, then you should cling to that person as a good, strong friend. But be careful: almost everyone who says that, has already placed something or someone else on that Throne, usually themselves.” In light of this quote it seems clear that Yitro was trying to separate Moshe from that throne of power. It is only when Moshe is removed from the potential of becoming a tyrant that we could receive the Torah.
We are living in a time of tyranny where the President thinks he is above the law.  The constitution of this republic and this democracy itself is in peril. Who will be our Yitro?

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