Weekly Torah Portion

Ethics in the Parsha – Parshat Yitro

And you shall show them the way in which they must walk, and the action they must take”(Shemot 17:20)

When Moshe Rabbeinu is advised by his father-in-law to choose judges, Yitro also advises him on how he should be educating the people. He starts with the obvious emphasis on teaching precepts and statutes, but then adds the above verse. Chazal (Bava Metsia 30b) interpret this to include a number of seminal instructions:

“And you shall show them”-this is their livelihood.

“The way”-doing kind deeds

“In which they must walk”- visiting the sick and burying the dead

“And the action”- adjudication.

“They must take”- acting beyond the letter of the law.

                Since the Torah quotes the entire message of Yitro, it is clearly as important as any other imperative in the Torah. Yitro is primarily concerned that, having just escaped slavery and being promised a land flowing with milk and honey, the Israelites' work ethic will suffer as a result. Moreover, while all their needs are divinely provided in the desert, when they enter Israel they will require all kinds of skills to adapt to the new environment. For this reason he emphasizes the need for a gainful profession. In another place Chazal state more bluntly:

“Whoever does not teach his child a profession; it is as if he taught him to steal” (Kiddushin 29a)

                If we apply this dictum to business, we can infer that if a father does not teach his child how to do business fairly, he is responsible when the son later on cheats others, since he had not properly learnt a profession. Business ethics is not just learning a set of laws; it involves applying moral standards to one's chosen profession.

 Moreover all businessmen cannot forget “the way”, which means they must assimilate acts of benevolence and kindness into their daily conduct. An example of compassion exhibited in business is the decision of Israel's electricity authority not to cut off electricity to those who defaulted on their bills during periods of intense cold. Our goal in life is not just to make money, and involves taking action to assist those who cannot help themselves. Thus, we should visit the sick, bury the dead and comfort mourners without asking for recompense, because these actions will refine our characters and not just provide for our personal needs.

Setting up a fair court system also involves attributes of fairness. We cannot have a court which is skewed towards one political viewpoint, as it must objectively handle the needs of all society. Justice requires integrity and honesty, and-as Yitro later points out -judges must disdain all aspects of personal profit in order to maintain their objectivity. Thus, they should ideally be wealthy people to whom money is no issue.

                Finally, Yitro demands that we go “beyond the letter of the law.” This last prerogative is so important that the Gemara states “Jerusalem was only destroyed because people did not go beyond the letter of the law”. To understand this puzzling statement we must realize that laws have real constraints-they can be circumvented and exploited, they do not always apply well to individual situations and often will cause more damage when wrongly implemented. Additionally, if people stick with a strict interpretation of their rights they may cause social upheaval and foment animosity. A measure of concession can do wonders to attenuate social friction.

                 Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Hanania was considered one of the wisest sages, even besting the wise men of Greece in polemic. Yet he claimed he was once dumbfounded by a young girl. He was walking on a track leading through a field when the girl said: why are you walking here? Rabbi Yehoshua replied that there was a clear trail left by people, to which the girl retorted scornfully: “Robbers like you left the trail!” (Eruvin 54a). This story shows that even when something appears to be legal, it is not always the right thing to do. Rabbi Yehoshua should have realized that a path made through a private field might be a legitimate thoroughfare, but it is morally objectionable to use it. Many of our actions might be legally defensible, but are they the right way to act? Yitro taught us a fundamental lesson –we must strive to go beyond the letter of the law in order to achieve moral perfection, which is the basis of all the Torah. As Rav says,(Bereishit Rabba 44):”The Mitsvot were given in order to perfect us.”


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