World of the Sages: Justice and a good lawyer

World of the Sages Just

The Mishna alludes to prayers for wayfarers entering and departing a city, setting out two opinions as to the appropriate number of prayers (M. Brachot 9:4). According to the first opinion, a traveler should recite two prayers - one upon entering the city and one upon departure. A second opinion suggests that four prayers should be said - two upon arrival and two upon departure. The Mishna does not give the text of these prayers, merely stating their thrust: Giving thanks for protection afforded in the past and calling for help in consideration of future dangers. The Talmud quotes a source that offers a text of the prayers (B. Brachot 60a). As the traveler enters the city he should pray: "May it be Your will, God my Lord, that You bring me into this city in peace." Once the traveler has entered the city safely, he should offer a second prayer, this time of thanksgiving: "I thank You, God my Lord, for having brought me into this city in peace." When the traveler is prepared to leave the city, he should turn to the Almighty and pray: "May it be Your will, God my Lord and the Lord of my forebears, that You bring me out of this city in peace." After he has left the city, he should express his appreciation and anticipate the next leg of his journey: "I thank You, God my Lord, for having brought me out of this city in peace, and just as You have brought me out in peace, so should You lead me in peace, uphold me in peace and emplace my footsteps in peace, and may You save me from the hand of every enemy and ambush along the way." Does every entry and exit from a city necessitate such prayers? Are we really so fearful of the dangers of a new place that whenever we arrive and depart there are specific prayers for the occasion mandated by our sages? The Talmud qualifies that these blessings are only necessary in certain circumstances. Two possible qualifications are offered. First, the prayers are only relevant in a city where they do not "judge and execute," meaning people are executed without due legal process. Such a city is an unsafe environment for there is no recourse to a court of law where mistakes can be remedied and injustices rectified. Entering such a place warrants a call to God for divine protection; safe deliverance from such a place is certainly a reason to thank the Almighty. Is the possibility of capital punishment a sine qua non for safety? It appears that the focus of the discussion is on the existence of a legal system with courts that mete out appropriate punishments for those who commit crimes. The Talmud offers a second, alternative, qualification: Even in a city where they do "judge and execute" the prayers are warranted, lest the traveler be falsely accused of some crime and he will need someone to speak on his behalf; if no person comes forward to argue the innocence of the traveler, the court system will be of little use to him. Even a city governed by law can be dangerous and praying for the Almighty's assistance is justified. The sum of the alternative versions of the talmudic passage is that there are two concerns that should play on the mind of travelers as they enter new communities: Lawlessness and a dearth of people who would step forward to advocate on behalf of the excused. Knowing the dangers of lawlessness can help us understand the seven Noahide laws that according to our tradition address all humanity (T. Avoda Zara 8:4, B. Sanhedrin 56a). All but one of these laws instruct against certain actions or conduct. The first six Noahide laws are the prohibitions of idolatry, murder (see Genesis 9:6), theft, sexual promiscuity, blaspheming the Almighty's name and the prohibition against eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive (see Genesis 9:4). The seventh law is different from the others in that it requires a positive act: Setting up a just legal system with an effective judiciary where wrongs can be redressed fairly by a court of law. What about someone to lobby on our behalf: Where in our tradition do we find this concept? Here we turn to the liturgy of the High Holy Days. In the Ashkenazi rite there is a pertinent line: "When there is no advocate to intercede on our behalf against the accuser who reports our transgressions, You [God] speak for Jacob [and invoke the merit of the observance] of the statutes and law, and vindicate us in judgment, O king of judgment." If we have no interlocutor, we turn to the judge of judges, the Almighty, to argue our case on our behalf. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.