Parshat Dvarim: The ‘mission’

Isn’t Moshe Rabbeinu seemingly exaggerating when he claims that G-d cares about every trial held for every person about every amount, as small as it might be?

July 11, 2013 20:50
3 minute read.
Soccut prayers at the Western Wall.

Soccut Western Wall 370. (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Moshe Rabbeinu’s long speech, which is spread through most of the Book of Deuteronomy, is given before the nation before his passing and before the nation enters the Land of Israel.

At the beginning of the speech, Moshe tells the nation about the guidelines he had given the group of people appointed to be judges 40 years earlier, at the beginning of the long journey in the desert.

This is what Moshe instructed the judges: “Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him... you shall hear the small and the great alike; you shall not be afraid of the face of any man.” (Deuteronomy 1, 16-17) With these words, Moshe Rabbeinu teaches the appointed judges several fundamental principles which serve – until today – as the basis for the character and quality of the law anywhere the Bible reached.

And these are the principles: 1. The judge must properly hear all sides standing before him.

2. A just trial must be held for any person, citizen or “ger” – a stranger.

3. The judge must not express sympathy for either side.

4. No matter who the sides are, small or great, they have an equal right to a fair trial.

5. The judge must be courageous and not fear ruling justly, even if the loser in the trial is a person who has the power to harm the judge.

This list of guidelines was rationalized by Moshe with only these words: ”...for the judgment is G-d’s.” (Deuteronomy 1, 17) This rationale seems, at first glance, to be pretty superfluous. In order to judge justly, is it necessary for the judge to recognize that the law is a religious issue? And in general, why is it that “the judgment is G-d’s”?

Is every ruling dealing with neighborly disputes interesting to G-d? Isn’t Moshe Rabbeinu seemingly exaggerating when he claims that G-d cares about every trial held for every person about every amount, as small as it might be? Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (the Ramban – Nachmanides, among the greatest of commentators in Spain from approximately 800 years ago) explains Moshe’s surprising rationale this way: “It is for G-d to do justice among His creations, for therefore He created them so there will be honesty and justice among them, and to save plunder from its robber He put you in His place, and if you fear and rob, you are sinning before G-d because you failed in His mission.” (Ramban on the Torah, Deuteronomy) With these few sentences, the Ramban gives the principles of justice a status much higher than people are used to giving them. Values familiar to everyone, such as justice, honesty, loyalty and equality, are afforded completely different significance in his explanation.

Each of us has faced ideological decisions many times. Almost daily, we are faced with the question of whether we should fight for justice or allow interests – ours or others’ – to determine reality for us.

One does not have to be a judge sitting in court in order to face moral dilemmas.

These dilemmas come to the surface in the small and daily questions, such as: Should we be dealing with private matters during work hours? Should we get back at someone who we think does not like us? How should we judge a deed we experienced? All these and more are dilemmas we face every day.

In these cases, we have two choices – to be a “small” person who only considers his narrow interests or be “big” and act on the basis of the moral values of honesty, equality and fairness.

Moshe’s words are those that guide us.

Do we act and feel as though we are emissaries of G-d responsible for enforcing principles of justice and honesty in the world, or do we turn down this mission and choose not to turn the world into a better and more moral place? And when these are the sides of the dilemma, if to be an emissary of G-d to repair the world, or to fail in this mission, it is clear to all of us which side to choose!

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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