(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
This week we begin reading the last of the five books of the Torah – Deuteronomy.
This book is mostly composed of speeches Moses gave to the nation during the days before his death on the border of the Land of Israel. These speeches summarize the nation’s history during its 40 years in the desert on the way from Egypt to the Land of Israel. Likewise, Moses presented them with guidance and instructions on how to preserve the Jewish nation’s uniqueness after settling the Land of Israel – with a view toward the spiritual and cultural challenges they would be facing from the adjacent nations.
One of the events Moses reviewed in his first speech was the appointment of judges. After explaining the need to create a widespread legal system, he described the instructions he gave the judges prior to their appointment: “And I commanded your judges at that time, saying, ‘Hear [disputes] between your brothers and judge justly between a man and his brother, and between his litigant’” (Deuteronomy 1:16).
The words “judge justly” are ambiguous.
The simple meaning is to make sure the judgment is just, fair and honest.
But the world “justly” was interpreted by one of our medieval sages, Rabeinu Behayei ben Asher (Spain, 1255-1340), to mean “by compromise.”
This means the judge is not meant to strive to reach a decision based on absolute justice, but should soften the argument and instruct both sides to give in a little, to compromise.
This ambition to reach a compromise is not coincidental. In the prophecy read as the Haftara this week after the Torah portion, Isaiah prophecies about the good future in store for Jerusalem: “Zion shall be redeemed through justice and her penitent through righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27).
Justice and compromise are the ways a person makes room for others in his heart. Insisting on the letter of the law, even if it is just, can be a sign of egoism.
Even if a person harmed you, even if he owes you something, you should not live in the emotional state of the plaintiff. On the contrary, the understanding that others have faults, just as we have faults, is a basic concept that changes a person’s position when facing society.
Indeed, in the Talmud’s description of the factors leading to Jerusalem’s destruction, we find the following: “Jerusalem was destroyed because people there insisted on their rights based on the full letter of the law, and were not willing to be lenient” (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Baba Metzia, daf 30).
At first glance, this seems paradoxical.
The term “lenient” seems to insinuate that this is something that cannot be demanded of someone, so how could this be punishable? There is an important message concealed here: A person should rise above the basic position demanding what he thinks he deserves. Our position should be softer, more inclusive, less demanding.
This is not a recommendation, but rather an obligation. This is the correct way to live.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.