Last week, a crowd gathered in a Herndon, Virginia, courtroom to witness arguments in a case where the defendant was accused of abusing his powers and inflicting unnecessary harm against an upstanding member of the community. No, this was not a U.S. Supreme Court case, but rather a mock trial led by fifth-grade students at Congregation Beth Emeth (CBE).
The class debated whether Moses’s punishment of not being permitted to enter Israel for striking the rock, as told in Bamidbar (Numbers 20), was a just punishment. Students assumed the roles of the plaintiff and defendant, their respective lawyers, and character witnesses for the parties involved. The madrichim, or teaching assistants, acted as the jury. The scenes were unscripted, as the witnesses answered questions from opposing lawyers without knowing the questions in advance.
The prosecution argued that Moses’ punishment was appropriate because Moses lost his temper and called the Israelites rebels while disobeying a direct order from G-d. The attorneys for the defense countered that preventing Moses from entering the land of Israel was unfair because Moses had served as a loyal leader, taking the Israelites out of Egypt and splitting the Red Sea. Even Moses makes mistakes occasionally and should be forgiven, they added.
A mock trial helps develop the skill of critical thinking, a regular feature of learning at CBE. The students were required to support their ideas using textual evidence while considering opposing arguments. Through a lively court case, the students saw how a 4,000-year-old Biblical text can come to life in 2018.