Shoftim: Righteous judgment for everyone

Haredim (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
The Torah portion Shoftim opens with a commandment that the nation set up a system of justice and enforcing laws: “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities... and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment.”
Immediately following this directive, the Torah turns to speak to the ruling judge and instructs him on the basic regulations of the righteous judgment it had referred to: “You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism; and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words. Justice, justice shall you pursue...” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20) These rules seem obvious when discussing an ideal justice system in which the judges deal only with pursuing justice and truth.
But in reality, these rules are not to be taken for granted. To reach a state in which the justice system meets expectations, it is not enough to appoint professional and honest judges with integrity; the judge must check himself from time to time to make sure he is not showing favoritism, to check that he is devoid of subjectivity, and that he is indeed pursuing true justice.
When the Torah deals with righteous justice, it assumes that the appointed judges are professionals of integrity, and therefore it calls them “wise” and “just.” Yet, it warns them of blinding bribery because bribery can blind the eyes of the wise and pervert the words of the righteous.
We are not referring here to a judge who wants to distort the judgment, but to a wise and just judge (who acts justly), who despite these traits might pervert justice if he were to receive a bribe. The huge power of a bribe comes not when it causes purposeful perversion, but when it acts on someone without sufficient awareness. In this case, the bribery “blinds” even a wise person and causes him to see the facts before him inaccurately. Even the tone of the decision and the seemingly small details become distorted when there is bribery in the background of a legal determination.
The truth is that these regulations geared at establishing a just legal system are not focused only on the person who is appointed to an official role in the system. They speak to each and every one of us because on one level or another we all take on the complex and significant role of “judge.” In every interpersonal relationship, a person ends up being in a judgmental position whether or not he wants to be. When someone expresses his opinions or desires to us, we automatically begin judging him: Is he speaking the truth? Is what he wants a good thing? Is he taking me into consideration? This does not mean that we should judge others on every step and every word. Our sages have already told us, “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place” (Pirkei Avot, chapter 2, mishna 4). We are not supposed to appoint ourselves judges of others, referring to the judgment that takes place without our noticing it in our relationships with others.
This is where the judge’s downfall could occur.
Bribery, when it is actual or when it is expressed in our hidden favoritism, can lead us astray and blind us to the facts, ultimately distorting our words and deeds. Even if we are wise and righteous, if we do not make sure to be introspective and to analyze our motivations, we might mistakenly distort reality and treat others unfairly.
Each and every one of us must remember, at every opportunity, the important principle of “righteous justice” and have it guide all our relationships.
The writer is rabbi of Western Wall and holy sites.