Daily Israel Report

Judaism: Yitro: Serving the People

Wise words for those who labor for the public good, from the iconic first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel for whom Jerusalem's Merkaz Harav Yeshiva is named.
Published: Friday, February 01, 2013 10:58 AM


"Moses sat to judge the people. They stood around Moses from morning to evening." (Ex. 18:13)

From the account in the Torah, it would seem that Moses spent all his time judging the people. Yet, it was clear to the Sages that this could not be the case.

Overworked Judges

The Talmud (Shabbat 10a) relates that two dedicated judges worked such long hours that they were overcome with fatigue. (It is unclear whether this was a physical weakness from overwork, or a psychological depression from time lost from Torah study.) When Rabbi Hiyya saw their exhaustion, he advised the two scholars to limit their hours in court:

"It says that Moses judged the people from morning to evening. But could it be that Moses sat and judged all day? When did he have time for Torah study?

"Rather, the Torah is teaching us that a judge who judges with complete fairness, even for a single hour, is considered to be God's partner in creating the world. For the Torah uses a similar phrase to describe Creation, 'It was evening and morning, one day' (Gen. 1:5)."

Rav Hiyya's statement requires clarification. If judging is such a wonderful occupation - one becomes a partner with God! - then why not adjudicate all day long? And in what way is the work of a judge like creating the world?

Personal Well-Being vs. Public Service

Great individuals aspire to serve the community and help others to the best of their abilities. The two judges felt that they could best serve their community by bringing social justice and order through the framework of the judicial system. Therefore, they invested all of their time and energy in judging the people. For these scholars, any other activity would be a lesser form of divine service. However, their dedication to public service was so intensive that it came at the expense of their own personal welfare, both physical and spiritual.

Rabbi Chiyya explained to the scholars that while their public service was truly a wonderful thing, it is not necessary to neglect all other aspects of life. If one only judges for a single hour, and spends the rest of his time improving his physical and spiritual well-being so that he can better serve in his public position, then his entire life is still directed towards his true goal. It is clear that personal growth will enhance one’s community service. Better an hour of productive activity in a fresh, relaxed state of mind and body, than many hours of constant toil in a tired and frenzied state.

Two Parts of the Day

What is the connection between Moses' judging "from morning to evening" and the description of the first day of Creation, "It was evening and morning, one day"? The day is one unit, made up of two parts - daytime and night. The daytime is meant for activity and pursuing our goals, while the night is the time for rest and renewal. Together, daytime and night form a single unit, constituting a day.

The balance of these two aspects - activity and renewal - is particularly appropriate for those who labor for the public good. The hours that we devote to physical and spiritual renewal help us in our public roles; they become an integral part of our higher aspiration to serve the community.

(Gold from the Land of Israel pp. 130-132. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 4-5, Sent to Arutz Sheva by Rabbi Chanan Morrison of Rav Kook on the Net: RavKookTorah.org)