Parshat Yitro

Torah Reading for Week of January 31 – February 6, 2021
“The Voter’s Bible”
By Rabbi Haim Ovadia, AJRCA Professor of Talmud & Sephardic Thought
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
Does Jewish Law offer any guidelines on how to vote in democratic elections? Most people would be inclined to say no, since no democratic society is mentioned in the Bible. Yet despite the lack of a democratic society in ancient Israel, there are still important insights we can derive from biblical passages.
I am writing these words in the twilight of the Trump presidency, and I do hope that when you read them, we will not be in mourning for more lives lost, for moral values shattered. In the wake of the murderous and treacherous attacks on the Capitol there are many questions which remain unanswered. I do not posses the knowledge to analyze all the factors and undercurrents in American society which led to this attack, but I believe I can answer the question of how observant Jews could support a person who encouraged and prompted those actions.
On every election cycle, the questions which are raised by Jews who see themselves committed to Judaism and Zionism are: Is this candidate good for the Jews? Is this candidate good for Israel? These should not be the criteria of American citizens, even if they are ardent Zionists and devout religious zealots. The prophet Jeremiah states it very clearly (26:7):
Seek the wellbeing of the city to where I exile you and pray for it to HaShem, for when the city is at peace, you will be at peace.
The city is Babylonia, the destroyer of the Temple in Jerusalem, the archenemy of the Jewish People, yet Jeremiah tells the exiles to pray for its wellbeing. They are now residents, against their will, in an evil regime, but the prophet argues that they will fare better in a prosperous city. In modern times, Jeremiah’s words were confirmed by anthropologist Jared Diamond who writes that ethnic strife usually erupts in the wake of economic strife. While it is true that racist anger is unleashed towards the other, the immigrant, but the trigger is famine or poverty.
According to that logic, Jewish-American voters should ask which candidate is the best for America, but this conclusion does not solve the problem. Even if we are willing to shift the center of gravity from Jews and Israel to Americans in the United States, deciding who is better for the country is subjective and usually follows party lines.
This is where Parshat Yitro comes in to offer words of wisdom. Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, sees that he is crumbling under the burden of his duties as a leader. Moshe explains to Yitro that he serves as a judge for the people, and Yitro suggests that Moshe delegates his responsibilities. He offers a system in which each ten people have a representative. Each five of those representatives report to a superior called a minister of fifty. Above those there are officers in charge of groups of one hundred and one thousand people. This system allows superiors to listen to the voice of the people and is as close to a democratic system within biblical monarchy or theocracy.
In the same verse (Ex. 18:21) Yitro specifies the criteria for those supervisors. They have to be people of great courage and of integrity, people of truth who abhor bribery. Those character traits are fundamental for the proper function of government, and without them the whole nation would be compromised. This requirement, presented to Moshe by his father-in-law, was deemed so essential by the Giver of the Law that it was recorded in the Torah before the Giving of the Law. It follows that it should guide us when we vote for a candidate. Though we might decide that our candidate is better for America because of our party affiliation, we cannot, in good conscious, vote for a candidate who does not possess those character traits. If the candidate of our party does not have courage, does not display integrity, does not speak the truth, and can be bought whether by a multimillion deal or a loaf of bread, we should vote for the candidate of the other party. It is not only our civil duty, but also our religious duty as Jews.
We do not know whether Yitro’s system was implemented and functioned as he envisioned, but the very idea was so important to our ancestors, that they named the Torah portion which we are going to read this Shabbat after him. May we all learn from the teachings of Yitro and choose our elected officials in accordance with the guidelines that he offered to Moshe in his wisdom.
Shabbat Shalom