Rabbi Jason Bonder
In last week’s Torah portion, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro was awestruck by Moses’ busy schedule.
The Torah tells us, “But when Moses’ 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?’” (Exodus 18:14) Jethro tells Moses to get help from others. Moses’ time is too precious to hear every case.
This depiction of Moses overly pressed for time reminds me of a story told by David Litt, a speechwriter for President Barack Obama. In his Moth Mainstage story titled, “Have You Met Him Yet?” Litt tells of the time he handed Obama tangled earphones.
“I reached into my pocket and pulled out what looks like a hairball made out of wires. I don’t know what’s happened. I guess somewhere in that waiting room, I have just worried this thing into a hopeless tangle. And now I don’t know what to do, so I just hand the entire thing to the president of the United States. Now, if you work in the White House, you will hear the phrase, ‘There is no commodity on earth more valuable than the president’s time,’ which I always thought was a cliché. Until … I watched Barack Obama … untangle headphones…for thirty seconds … while looking directly at me.” (Bowles, Burns, Hixson, Jenness, Tellers, How to Tell A Story, p. 56)
Only the most important things reach the desks of top leaders. This is the lesson that Jethro teaches Moses. This is also why it is funny and cringeworthy to listen to Litt’s story. As we picture Obama untangling those headphones, we can so easily imagine better uses of the president’s time.
Since last week’s portion was about protecting Moses’ time, I see this portion as a way of protecting God’s time, with one very powerful exception.
Mishpatim begins with God giving Moses very detailed instructions. Many of these rules address scenarios regarding animals and property in which disputes between neighbors might arise. Especially coming on the heels of last week’s portion, I imagine that this is God carving out ways to save time as Moses did last week. Fewer cases before judges in the lower courts means less work for Moses. Less for Moses means it potentially frees up God’s calendar to do other things, like, for example, oversee all of existence.
Nevertheless, just as we settle into thinking that God can’t be bothered with the everyday things, we find the following verses. “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me.” (Exodus 22:21-22)
This is part of a larger trend in the Torah. God makes time for those that suffer. God tells Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10) God tells Moses, “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings.” (Exodus 3:7) Again we are reminded this week that when the victim, the oppressed or the disenfranchised call out to God, God listens.
Does God truly heed the cries of sufferers? That is a theological debate that likely none of our schedules can accommodate. Furthermore, I don’t believe that is why the Torah says this. Rather than a statement about the Almighty, I see in these verses a challenge to those of us who are not as busy as God, Moses and the president. If the Almighty hears the cries of those in need, how much more so should we, regular folks, make time for those who are suffering?
Moses made room in his schedule by appointing more judges. Litt, presumably, untangled the headphones before heading into the Oval Office every time after that first encounter.
But for the rest of us, appointments and tech are not the answer to making time for those who suffer. We can find our first step, rather, in God’s response to suffering. If God listens, we can too. Shma Yisrael. Listen, O Israel.
Rabbi Jason Bonder is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.