Parashat Yitro Devar Torah
By Tsvi Benson-Tilsen, Bar Mitzva
Presented Shabbat morning 18 February 2006
at Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel
Moshe, monkeys, Middle Ages, and the new millennium. So…let me tell you about my parasha. There are many important things I could talk about; for example, the ten commandments, or Mount Sinai. Plenty has been said about that. So let me quote from Exodus 18:25 (that's p. 290 in the blue Hertz humash and p. 435 in the maroon Etz Hayim humash). It reads, ויבחר משה אנשי־חיל מכל־ישראל ויתן אתם ראשים על־העם שרי אלפים שרי מאות שרי חמישים ושרי עשרת, reasonably translated as "Moshe chose capable men from all of Israel and put them as chieftains over the people: officials for thousands, officials for hundreds, officials for fifties, and officials for tens."
A few verses back, Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law, had suggested this judicial plan as a solution to Moshe's volume problem. Moshe was supposed to judge every case among the Israelites, civil or criminal, by himself, from dawn to dusk. Yitro knew that Moshe wouldn't last for long that way, and came up with this system.
I conjecture that the basic premise in Yitro's plan was that the people needed Moshe's authority, but not necessarily his expertise. This means that, for legal purposes, Moshe should only have to deal with a small portion of the population, that is, those with legal problems too complex or important for the lower courts. In a schematic sense, picture a circle of courts, with the litigants on the outside. Most of the judging for cases among the people would be dealt with by the outer layer of judges; if there were broader ramifications of the decision made in a particular case, it would be brought to an inner court. If need be, Moshe would continue to judge weighty cases and those which required Moshe's expertise. Basically, each small outer court would act as one node, and together all of the outer courts, or nodes, would make up a semi-centralized network, taking the pressure off of Moshe.
The point is, instead of having an inefficient single judicial authority, the network of lower courts would distribute the authority and the work.
Now — the monkeys! The Hamadryas baboons inhabit Ethiopia, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and parts of Yemen. They live in areas where vegetation and safe places to sleep are sparse; so much so that they are forced to live in small groups wandering the desert in search of resources. Thus, the wandering harems create a network with which to locate these resources.
The commonality between the monkey network and the Israelite court network is a matter of distributive authority. Again, Moshe spread his decision-making authority among the lower courts, alleviating the overflow of court cases. The monkeys make a network to deal with the problem of too much space to be explored, in which they had to find the sparse resources. Likewise, Moshe had too many cases to adjudicate by himself. After following Yitro's suggestion, the only reason why Moshe would deal with a case was if it required his special expertise or authority.
Another, separate group of monkeys have a related social structure. According to Stanford University biologist Robert M. Sapolsky ("A Natural History of Peace," Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006 p. 104), they live as a collection of small groups, each one an individual node. In this networked society, most of the interactions between individual nodes are local ones. The further away any two given groups are. the less frequently they interact, but they do retain the ability to communicate. This network, when properly balanced, produces highly cooperative clusters of interactions, and potential longer distance coordination.
This is very similar to Jewish court systems in late medieval Europe. There was a network of individually operating courts throughout Europe in those times. Most of the communications between these courts occurred locally but the network, like the monkeys, had the possibility to communicate over long distances. The advantage of the network was that of insurance. If, for example, I were a Jew in Baghdad and I had a contract with a Jew in, say, Madrid, this network would help enforce the contract, to the end that Jewish traders in those times could operate with greater security.
So here's my overall point. Today, the power grid in America is, shall we say, a very complex distribution network. The way it operates is by a certain number of power plants producing energy, usually by burning fossil fuels, and then feeding it into the massive grid of electrical power lines. I think this is quite similar to the societal structure of the monkeys and the medieval Jewish court system, in that the majority of interactions, or in this case, power transmissions, are local, but the network is able to transmit power over extremely long distances if need be. However, as it is right now, the grid is made up of fewer but larger power plants, creating a more centralized network. The way I see it, in this case, a higher level of efficiency could be reached if the actual points of power production were more but smaller. This would decrease the probability of a blackout caused by grid overload. This is a real problem, as we experienced a few years ago when a tree fell somewhere in Iowa and the whole east coast had a blackout.
I'm not saying we should all open private power plants in our backyards. There is a certain economy of scale involved in the production of power, thus the large power plants. But we could use solar panels. It will take some time, but I really think the transition into solar energy is inevitable. With power production spread across America, blackouts, brownouts, and inefficient energy handling will be all but gone.
Additional benefits of solar panels include taking advantage of a practically unlimited energy source, that is, the sun, providing a backup system for larger power plants, and the beginnings of the move towards clean energy production. The realization of these advantages served as the inspiration for my Bar Mitzva project, that is to install 6,000 watts of photovoltaic solar cells [at BEKI]. The panels will be installed in late April . Just as Yitro saw a flawed system, and suggested to Moshe a better alternative, so must we recognize the inadequacy of our current electrical system and do something about it.
Thank you friends and family for being here and sharing this day with me. Shabbat Shalom.Email Tsvi Benson-Tilsen email@example.com
For more information on Tsvi's Photovoltaic project at BEKI, see
- BEKI Bulletin February 2006
- The sun will shine on BEKI bar mitzva, by Howard Blas, Connecticut Jewish Ledger, 6 January 2006
- A Higher Power, New Haven Independent, 19 December 2005
- Student Power, SmartPower, December 2005
- Stemming the Tide, by Liz Galst, Forward (English), 4 November 2005
For more information contact:
Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel
85 Harrison Street
New Haven, CT USA 06515-1724
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