Parashat Devarim: The values that give us the right to exist

The role of a judge is so sensitive and significant, there is no room for mediocrity.

Judge's gavel, illustrative (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Judge's gavel, illustrative
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week’s Torah portion, Devarim, begins a series of long speeches in which Moses takes leave of the Jewish people on the brink of the entry into Canaan, the Land of Israel. Moses, who took the people out of Egypt and led it during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, knows that the parting is imminent. It is important to him to take leave of the people as he surveys his and their shared history. He wants to teach the nation how to behave in the future and warn them to beware of sins.
The survey begins with a description of appointing judges. Why? Because the first message Moses wants to make sure to convey to the people before the entry into the Land of Israel, so that it be etched into their hearts, is of the importance of justice and of a fair judicial system.
This is how Moses describes the judges he appointed: “...wise and understanding anashim [men], known among your tribes” (Deuteronomy 1:13).
The preeminent biblical commentator Rashi teaches us that the word “anashim” (men) means righteous men, and “understanding” means that they can understand and derive one thing from another. Maybe it is what we refer to today as cleverness or developed intuition.
And what is meant by “known among your tribes”? Rashi explains: “Men whom you recognize, for if one were to come before me wrapped in his talit, I would not know who he is and of what tribe he is, and whether he is suitable. But you know him, for you have raised him.”
Rashi was focusing on a pretty common issue. We meet an impressive person who looks good, speaks well, seems intelligent. But who is he really? How can we really know what he’s like? Moses turns, then, to the tribe that the potential judge comes from and asks for recommendations.
And why is this so important? When we continue and read the set of directions and warnings Moses gives the judges, we understand that this is a role that is so sensitive and important that there is no room for mediocrity.
“Hear [disputes] between your brothers and judge justly between a man and his brother.... You shall not favor persons in judgment; [rather,] you shall hear the small just as the great; you shall not fear any man” (ibid. 1:16-17).
Moses indicates a sensitive point. Judges are people too. And when someone familiar and someone unfamiliar come to be judged, human nature might cause the judge to lean in favor of the familiar person, in which case justice is not served. And this would be terrible. This should never happen. “You shall not favor persons in judgment!” And what if the judge has a respected person and a simple person standing before him? Here, too, human nature might lead to a bias in favor of the respected person. And again, justice would not be served. This should never happen. “You shall hear the small just as the great!”
And sometimes, the two people standing before the judge are neither familiar nor respected, but one of them is known to be a physically or verbally violent person. If the judge rules against him, he or his family might be harmed. And again, human nature might lead the judge to try to appease such a person. But justice must be served without the judge being concerned for his own welfare. “You shall not fear any man!”
Moses is teaching us that justice is not a luxury. We have no right to compromise on it. He explains: “for the judgment is upon the Lord” (ibid.).
You, the judge, must remember that there is a supreme judge who judges all people, meaning God. The justice that is done in court is only a reflection of real justice, and when a judge does not rule righteously, he is abusing his office.
These values of justice and morality are at the very foundation of Judaism. Before entering the Land of Israel, Moses reminds the people what its right of existence in the Land of Israel is based on. We, too, who live thousands of years after Moses’s speech, still stand and listen, learn and internalize – “for the judgment is upon the Lord.”
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.