The book of Deuteronomy is composed of a series of speeches delivered by Moses to the people in the final days before he parted from them and passed away. During those days, the people camped in the plains of Moab, the wide plain area east of the Jordan River, preparing to cross the Jordan and enter the land of Canaan to conquer it and establish a nation.
In his speeches, Moses sought to guide and instruct the people according to the spiritual and moral principles he had received from God during their 40 years of wandering in the desert.
These speeches of Moses begin with a concise historical review, in which Moses provided a summary of the 40 years in the wilderness. The first story that Moses discussed in his speech was the appointment of judges.
“And I said to you at that time, saying, ‘I cannot carry you alone. The Lord, your God, has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as the stars of the heavens in abundance. May the Lord God of your forefathers add to you a thousandfold as many as you are, and may He bless you, as He spoke concerning you! How can I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by myself? Prepare for yourselves wise and understanding men, known among your tribes, and I will make them heads over you.’ And you answered me and said, ‘The thing you have spoken is good for us to do.’
“So I took the heads of your tribes, men wise and well known, and I made them heads over you, leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens, and officers, over your tribes. 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. You shall not favor persons in judgment; [rather] you shall hear the small just as the great; you shall not fear any man, for the judgment is upon the Lord!’” (Deuteronomy 1, 9-17).
Discussing the ethics and values of a Jewish nation
MOSES DESCRIBES in these speeches the establishment of the justice and legal system for the Jewish nation; a system that was established many years before the children of Israel entered the Land of Israel and achieved independent rule. The importance of justice, law, and fair judgment led Moses to begin preparing the nation for their entry into the land of Canaan with these values. These are the principles that the people of Israel are called upon to uphold when they achieve self-rule: justice, law, and fair judgment.
Moses also explains why these values are the guiding principles of the people of Israel because “the judgment is upon the Lord.” The question of justice is not merely a human question; it is a theological question. Judaism makes a radical claim about reality, suggesting that the order of the world can be transformed. The belief is that God oversees the world and governs it – with justice! As it is further expressed in the book of Deuteronomy: “The deeds of the [Mighty] Rock are perfect, for all His ways are just; a faithful God, without injustice He is righteous and upright” (Deuteronomy 32,4).
This motivates humans to act according to justice and ethics because they are the rules of the game according to Judaism: The righteous succeed. However, this is a challenging claim, as we see much suffering and injustice in the world which is very difficult – and even forbidden – to justify! Indeed, it is not easy to uphold the banner of integrity and justice when moral chaos unfolds around us, and it seems that justice does not prevail.
World War II was a great challenge of the kind described. The distorted and murderous attempt to destroy the Jewish people, a partially successful attempt, created immense difficulty in maintaining the belief that the world operates according to the principles of justice and ethics.
Nevertheless, there are many testimonies of people who, even under the direst of circumstances imaginable, managed to maintain the image of God and act with integrity, even showing kindness to others. These testimonies teach us that it is not enough to believe that the world operates with justice; it is incumbent upon us to actualize it. We cannot expect justice to operate on its own.
Indeed, “the judgment is upon the Lord,” but the result of this belief is not a fatalistic stance waiting for justice to be automatically realized. It is a moral command imposed on humans to act justly, not to discriminate, and not to fear when it comes to acting with integrity. ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites.