Judges and Elders

Rav Noam Samet • 2007

Our Parasha’s return to the topic of Har Sinai, teaches us a new aspect of the leadership of the Israeli nation.



Parshat Mishpatim ends (Shemot - Chapter 24) with Moshe’s ascent up Har Sinay to receive the tablets from God and the events that ensued (building the alter, the ‘appearance of the glory of the Lord’ etc). The Midrash states a difference of opinion between the sages as to when these events took place. The same dispute can be found between Rashi and the Ramban. According to Rashi the description up to verse 12, Moshe’s ascent - occurred prior to matan torah, and the following verses - took place latter. The Ramban and the Eiben Ezra on the other hand, are of the opinion that this whole description occurred after matan torah and before the forty days Moshe spent on the mountain.

Both sides of this of this dispute are actually dealing with the combining of two stories, the one presented in Yitro and this one, into one unified chronological framework. In this commentary, I would like to bring to light the differences between each story, and the different aspects they present of the same event, in accordance with the way the scriptures present them - as two separate issues.

The following commentary will focus on one question - the system of leadership:


The judges

In Yitro we were introduced to the judicial system that Moshe establishes- the leader system. This system was suggested by Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, and was activated (according to the simple reading of the scriptures) prior to matan torah.

At first, all the people would come to Moshe to ‘seek God’:

Moses said to his father in law, “For the people come to me to seek God.

If any of them has a case, he comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make known the statutes of God and His teachings”.

Yitro advises Moshe to change his mode of action, and appoint rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, and rulers of tens. These rulers are not prophets, as the attributes required of them are those of worthy leaders, so it would seem that they used their own human judgment to rule, rather then through Devine prophecy. Only the ‘major matter’ should be brought to Moshe:

And they shall judge the people at all times, and it shall be that any major matter they shall bring to you, and they themselves shall judge every minor matter, thereby making it easier for you, and they shall bear [the burden] with you.

It would seem that Yitro’s advice creates not only a managerial change, but also a fundamental change in the way the nation led: in contrast to the initial status, where all ‘matters of state’ were managed through Moshe’s Roach Hakodesh - his prophecy, after Yitro’s advice, there is now a separation of authorities: a separate ‘civilian’ judicial system is established!


The seventy elders

In Mishpatim a completely different picture is painted: we are introduced to a new leadership system - the elders:

And to Moses He said, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and prostrate yourselves from afar”.

The ‘rulers’ which we met in Yitro aren’t mentioned here. Who are the people this new form of leadership is made up of - who are the seventy elders?

In no instances before this one have seventy elders been mentioned. The elders of Israel have plainly been mentioned, but never this specific number. There is only one more instance were they are mentioned again. In numbers chapter eleven, the story of Kivroth Hata’avah (Graves of Craving), where Moshe appoints seventy elders and bestowed them from the spirit that was upon him.

The seventy elders share the leadership with Moshe, and the source of their authority is the ‘spirit’ - the same inspiration that is bestowed from Moshe to them. Here too the elders share in the ‘appearance of the glory of the Lord’ together with Moshe. Moshe is not presented as the solitary leader; rather tan extended spiritual leadership exists parallel to him - the seventy elders.

If so, in contrast to the system that we see in Yitro, where the leaders are the civilian system and Moshe the religious one, here we see a system with one ‘main player’ - Moshe, who bestows from the spirit that is upon him to the seventy elders.

It would seem that this difference in systems of leadership is linked to the differences in description of events at Har Sinay. The two descriptions can be distinguished as revelation and covenant. Parshat Yitro deals with the revelation. Its centre is the description of God’s descent upon Har Sinay and the things said there. Parshat Mishpatim on the other hand deals with the covenant, and the centre of its description is the activity of the people standing at the bottom of the mountain:

And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, “All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear”.

And Moses took the blood and sprinkled [it] on the people, and he said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has formed with you concerning these words”.

It would appear that the seventy elders here act as representatives of the whole nation in the act of the covenant- they experience a revelation and the perceive God, as representatives of the nation, and the revelation becomes a covenant - they eat and drink as is often done when a treaty or covenant is made, (for instance Yakov and lavan, Genesis 31 54).

From the perspective of the revelation story, there remains a gap between the level of national conduct, which is preformed by a civilian system of leaders, and the revelation itself, which is possible only through the singular conduct which is Moshe.

But from the perspective of the covenant story - the whole nation, through the elders, takes part in the relationship with God, and from now on- the way its life is led is Part of the encounter with revelation, which is preformed by the leadership whom the spirit of God was bestowed upon.

ישיבת שיח יצחק גבעת הדגן - אפרת, מיקוד: 90435