God responds to man, “measure-for-measure” or in Hebrew, “Midda K’negged Midda”. This means that if man sins with evil speech, God will respond (if the man is worthy) with a commensurate punitive measure. For example, when Miriam spoke poorly about her brother Moses, God afflicted her with leprosy. In general, leprosy is visited upon one who slanders another. The justice or “measure-for-measure” here, as that since one slanders in order to destroy another so as to lift their own reputation and self-image, the proper response is that which isolates the person from the accolades of others and lowers them to reality: leprosy and isolation are therefore appropriate. Ego is the culprit, so degradation to one’s image is the proper response, and leprosy accomplishes this. God’s justice is one in which He attempts to correct a person’s or a nation’s flaws, by addressing those very flaws: God will first inform the person where in their actions or thoughts lies their corruption, so the person might correct what was previously overlooked, or ignored. God also first visits the sinner with lighter measures, before resorting to more drastic ones. This is witnessed in God’s deliverance of leprosy to the home first, then to one’s clothing, and then finally if the person ignores the first two warnings, his body is afflicted.
Another example cited in Megilla 12b, is Achashverosh’s queen Vashti. She was killed for refusing to appear in the nude before the king. This was in response for her sin of stripping the Jewish women and forcing them to work on the Sabbath. Vashti, and others who hear of Vashti’s fate, are afforded the opportunity to again witness God’s justice.
We also learn from the Rabbis, that if one let’s the abuses of another person go without response, God too will be light with such a person, and God will not take him to task, as He will do with others. What is the justice here? I believe this idea is that as this person does not value the abuse of another as something worthy of his response, this means that in his framework, such an act of abuse is not deemed by him as severe. This being the case, God will not deal severely with this man, when he does the same to another victim, since this man does not view the crime as a severe matter. The justice is that God will at times work within man’s framework, so man feels God is just. In other words, if a person simply did not deem some infraction as severe, for good reason, God will not hold him accountable for violating that very infraction. Similarly, a Rabbi recently stated that one who sins with a sudden, impulsive passion; God does not punish him in the same measure as if committed in a premeditated manner.
In this week’s Parsha Yisro, again we find this theme:
“And Yisro was gladdened for all the good which God did for Israel, that He saved them from the hand of Egypt. And Yisro said, ‘Blessed is God that He saved you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh; that He saved the people from under the hand of Egypt’. Now I know that God is supreme form all other gods, for in the matter that they [Egypt] were judged.” (Exod. 18:9-11)
This last verse is a bit enigmatic, but Onkelos the proselyte explains: “Now I know that God is supreme and there is no other god than He; for in the thing which Egypt contemplated to judge Israel, they were judged.” This means that as the Egyptians killed the Jewish infants via drowning, Egypt was drowned in return. The question is this: where in this “measure-for-measure” did Yisro find validation for God’s superiority over other gods?
I do not know if there was one matter, which won over Yisro’s praises for God to the exclusion of all imposters. For in God’s measure-for-measure system, we learn many of God’s praiseworthy traits: this implies God’s knowledge of man’s (Egypt’s) actions viz., drowning infants; it teaches God’s laws of justice, that He punishes man; it teaches that God controls the universe, as He suspends natural laws; it teaches that God wants the good for man, and steers him towards it through punishments; and measure-for-measure teaches that God interacts with man. Perhaps in this last trait – that God interacts with man – did Yisro find wherein God deviates from all other gods: He is the only God that interacts, while all others are inanimate stone idols and woodcarvings.
Looking even closer at Onkelos’ words, he says, “for in the thing which Egypt contemplated to judge Israel, they were judged.” It appears that “judging” is an issue. Perhaps Yisro also saw this unique phenomenon: typically in his era, man projected the fallacy that lifeless idols governed and judged man. However, this was never corroborated by reality. Now, upon seeing that God returned upon Egypt their very judgment on the Jews of drowning them, Yisro was faced with the fact that not only can’t idols judge, nor does man, but it is God alone. Lifeless idols do nothing, and even animated man may make plans…but God destroys idols, He overrides man’s plans (Egypt’s judgment to drown infants) and He drowns them. This incident of the Red Sea exposed all other would-be judges (idols and Egypt) as imposters. God alone judges man.
In the capacity of “judge God demonstrates that nothing compares to Him. For although Egypt was so supreme as Yisro saw, yet, their attempt to drown Israel backfired: they were punished by a Power that exposed Egypt as truly powerless. Yisro saw that the fabricated authority assumed by various peoples and cultures, are so tenuous. This contrast of Egypt’s relative power, to God’s ultimate power and justice, evoked a reverence to God in Yisro.