Parshat Mishpatim 5773: Justice, Truth in Unbaised Judgement — by Judges and by Us

by Moshe Burt

Yishai Chasidah’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Jewish Personalities (pages 306-309) provides a fitting introduction to parsha Mishpatim in citing an example of how Yithro, for whom our previous parsha was named, was positioned and merited to express insights to Moshe Rabbeinu which were crucial to the evolution of Torah’s judiciary system. Chasidah cites Midrash HaGodol on BaMidbar (perek 10, posuk 30) which gives insight into Yithro’s righteousness, kindness and integrity. After a drought year, Yithro stated;

This has been a year of drought, and I borrowed money which I used to support the poor. If I don’t go and pay my debts, I will be desecrating the Name of Heaven.

Chasidah also cites Yerushalmi Brachot (Perek 2, posuk 8 ) which writes of Yithro;

When B’nai Yisrael do Hashem’s Will, HaKodesh Borchu searches throughout the world, and if he finds a righteous person among the nations, he brings him and attaches him to B’nai Yisrael. One of the examples given was Yithro.

So, it was much more than Yithro’s past governmental experience as an advisor to Pharoah which positioned him to counsel Moshe as to formation of a Judiciary. Yithro’s advice to Moshe was fully backed by his own actions in standing on honesty, integrity and principle. In advising Moshe Rabbeinu on how to judge B’nai Yisrael, Yithro spoke;

“You will provide out of all the people able men, such as fear Hashem, men of truth hating lucre (gain, money, riches); and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.” (Sefer Sh’mos, Perek 18, posuk 21)

In our parsha Mishpatim, many basic laws of civilized existence are enunciated for B’nai Yisrael. The purpose of the Mishpatim — the civil laws, it seems, is to protect the moral fiber of society by regulating relationships between men, encouraging truthfulness, sincerity and kindness while condemning immorality and deceit.

Rebbetzin Shira Smiles, in her sefer “Torah Tapestries” on Sefer Shemos (Parsha Mishpatim pages 87- 88, 92-96) discusses two laws of judges (in a Torah justice system) and how these laws relate to us, we who don’t serve in the legal system. Rebbetzin Smiles cites Sanhedrin 7b in explaining:

“A judge is prohibited to hear the words of a litigant until his fellow has arrived.” Judges are not permitted to hear a case until both parties present and prepared to present their arguments, one immediately following the other.

Why is the Torah so particular about a judge hearing the two accounts in immediate consecutive order? Any experienced judge understands that one account is only one half of the story and any initially formulated conclusions are temporary. The judge is aware that his view of the case will change when he hears the second side.

Hmmm? (Facetiously) Kinda sounds like the Israel’s agendized and corruption-ridden “judiciary” (sic)???

Rebbetzin Smiles then cites a Maharal (MeiRosh Tzurim, Shemos. page 254) which says:

…As soon as the a judge hears the first presentation, …. in his effort to fully understand the first litigant’s testimony, he mentally validates the initial version of the story. Even if the judge subsequently hears the second side legitimately disprove the original story, it is very difficult for him to listen with equal objectivity. The judge’s natural human inclination is to support his original impression.

Rebbetzin Smiles continues:

And…, time is a factor…. The more time between presentations, the more the first opinion dominates the judge’s mind. Understanding human nature, Hashem put a Mitzvah in the Torah that advises judges to hear the opposing testimonies one after the other, as close as possible. It is a warning to prevent a first opinion from overpowing the mind and spoiling objectivity.

Rebbetzin Smiles then discusses how first impressions can effect us, we who don’t serve in the judiciary, in our daily lives. It may be the new neighbor about whom one may form a first mistaken negative impression from hearing yelling from behind the neighbor’s door. Others, who know the neighbor, would then speak highly of his or her kind attributes. Rebbetzin Smiles asks:

What would it take to convince you that you might have been mistaken?

It’s difficult to let go of… first impressions. Even [Torah-true] judges, who constantly strive to be truthful, were given laws to prevent a biased first impression…. Prevent the possibility of the initial impression becoming a permanent one. When forming an opinion, stop and… mix it with other possible perspectives. Hashem rewards us, as it says in the gemara: “Anyone who judges others favorably will bee judged favorably in Heaven.”

When we decide that the truth is more important than our egos, we will be able to swallow our pride and confess our errors.

The second law mentioned in our parsha which Rebbetzin Smiles discusses “deals with court dress code.” Rebbetzin Smiles cites gemara Shevu’os 31a:

Two people cannot appear in court dressed differently, meaning one dressed simply and the other extravagantly. Either the one wearing expensive clothing must remove it and dress more humbly, or he must give the other litigant similarly expensive garments for the duration of the court case.

The gemora says… “distance yourself from a matter of falsehood.” The drastic contrast in garments might influence judges to favor the finely dressed person or snub the poor person’s argument. The simply-dressed litigant might feel that the judges are predisposed toward his rich opponent, as Rashi explains (commentary on gemora Shevu’os 31a).

Rebbetzin Smiles cites Rabbi Yehuda Leib Chasman (Sefer Ohr Yahel, Vol. 3,page 124) in further explaining dress as a possible factor in judicial decision-making:

Even though… [a] judge may be committed to impartialilty, his eyes can still lead him astray. A gold button and a drape of expensive fabric hypnotize the human mind. Once you remove… visual stimuli, an objective judgement can emerge…. Hashem created our human nature; and therefore, instructs us: Distance yourself from falsehood and remove any visual cues that could mislead you.

Rebbetzin Smiles illustrates the effect of outer dress on all of us, not just judiciary, with this story:

A shul in England had a particular policy of… giving [the] priviledge of being called up to the Torah exclusively to people who wear top hats…. One man… never wore a top hat. Years went by… many family simchas (joyous occasions) and yahtzeits. He was never given an aliyah simply because he refused to put on a top hat.

One Shabbos morning, he came into shul wearing a top hat, and…. sure enough he got called up to the Torah for an aliyah. When he approachedm he suddenly took off his hat, put it down next to the Sefer Torah and, turning to it, said: “Nu, say the… blessing! You’re the one who got the aliyah.”

Rebbetzin Smiles again cites Rabbi Chasman who notes:

We judge all the time. We make internal judgements and decide how to act. Some thoughts are influenced by the yetzer hatov (good inclination) and some by the yetzer hara (evil inclination). So how do we tell the difference? …The yetzer hara thoughts are usually dressed in a fancy suit…. to deceive us with positive external impressions: “Think how amazing life will be be when you earn that extra money, even if it’s slightly dishonest.” …The yetzer hatov’s ideas never seem to look as exciting or glamorous on the outside.

The gemara (Berachas 5a) gives us ways to conquer the yetzer hara, it instructs us to learn Torah and to accept the yoke of the Kingship of Heaven…. This is how to enclothe the yetzer hatov in the elegant clothing it deserves; we feel how beautiful and pleasant it is to learn Torah and serve Hashem, and then the desire for sin lessens. If that doesn’t work, then… remember the day of death. That is tearing off the yetzer hara’s finery and exposing the rags that truly lie underneath.

The spirit and paradigm of our parsha, the inculcation of honesty, principle and integrity in dealing with our fellow is best described by the story told in L’lmod U’Lamed, by Rabbi Mordechai Katz, (p. 81-82, quoting Yerushalmi Bava Metzia, Perek 2, Choshen Mishpat 266) about Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach which sets a standard for Jewish sincerity in his dealing with his fellow Jews and with Hashem.

It seems that one day Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach needed to purchase a donkey for traveling. He purchased the donkey from an Arab. At that time, neither he nor the Arab noticed that the donkey bore a small package in it’s saddle.

Sometime later, a student of the Rabbi found the package and opened it. He was amazed by it’s contents.

Rabbi Katz writes that the dialogue between Rabbi Ben Shetach and his student, and the story’s conclusion went something like this:

“It’s a diamond, Rebbe… A perfect diamond. It must be worth an enormous amount. Sell it and you’ll never want for money. Imagine all of the Mitzvot you will be able to do with the new-found money.”

Rabbi Ben Shetach shook his head and responded “I may be able to perform many Mitzvot with the money … but they will never cancel the demerit that will be mine if I keep property which is not mine. No, I will return the diamond to its rightful owner, the Arab.”

But the student responded, “why not keep the diamond? The Arab will never know of his loss.” Rabbi Ben Shetach responded, “But Hashem will know what I have done. I did not earn the diamond and so it is not mine.”

Rabbi Ben Shetach was as good as his word and returned the diamond to the astonished Arab. “I don’t believe that anyone could be that honest” said the Arab. “The Jews must have wonderful laws. Blessed be the G’d of Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach.”

Rabbi Ben Shetach’s strict adherence to Mishpatim, to common decency to his fellow man created a great Kiddush Hashem and should serve as an example for all to follow, to fulfill all of Hashem’s Mitzvot with equal zeal.

Imagine the merit to be earned collectively by a unity of B’nai Yisrael acting truthfully, justly and treating each other — our fellow Jew, at all levels from daily man-in-the-street dealings, or between merchant and customer, bus driver and passenger, employer/employee, civil-servant and Yosef Q. Jewish Citizen, as well as those governing toward those being governed, as Yithro the righteous Ger did, or as Rabbi Ben Shetach treated the itinerant Arab in our story, not even his Jewish brother.

And imagine building on that national kindness and unity with the rock-solid, unified, unequivocable principle — Kol Ha’aretz Shelanu (This is Our Land)! This seems a logical evolvement of Bein Adam L’Chaveiro applied to Bein Adam L’Mokom, an outgrowth of fair and righteous dealing between one and his fellow as extended to our relationship with Hashem.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, in his Sefer “Growth Through Torah” (on Parsha Mishpatim, page 197) adds to this equation of righteousness, kindness, principle and integrity by citing both Sefer Shemot (Perek 23, posuk 8 ), and Rabbi Avraham of Sochotchov equating one’s bias’ with bribery:

“And bribery you shall not take, for a bribe will blind those who can see, and distort the words of the righteous.” (Sefer Shemot, Perek 23, posuk 8 )

Rabbi Avraham of Sochotchov commented…. When a person is blind, he realizes it and will ask someone who can see to help him. But if a person has a bias, the bias blinds him to such an extent that he does not even realize that he is blind. He feels that what he perceives is reality and will refuse to listen to others.

There are many bribes that distort our judgement. We are not referring to an out and out bribe. Any bias will cause us to view things in a way that will fit our particular bias.

It would seem then that the modern-day adaptation, or application of the term “bias” would be agendization, as in the Israeli left’s promotion of plans which serve to radicalize as “racist (sic)” (in the very eyes of the agendizers and in the eyes of segments of the public who fall prey to such bias) those who possess the Land of Israel as our Divine legacy. And in doing so, they have sooo deluded themselves and sooo numbed and blinded themselves to what should be the self-evident truth

And so Yithro, through his kindness, honesty and principle merited to advise and format the Judicial system of B’nai Yisrael, and both he and Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach seem as paradigms of what R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, z’l described (in the new Hirsch Chumash translated to English by Daniel Haberman on Sefer Sh’mot, Parsha Mishpatim, perek 21, posuk 1, page 362) in a commentary on the opening word — “Va’eileh” regarding the Mizbeiyach (the Altar) as symbolizing the “upbuilding society in the spirit of justice and humanity and… strengthening each and every individual in the spirit of pure morality.”

Finally, there is a Torah Gems citing of the Ibn Ezra on Parsha Yithro regarding the appointment of a judicial system, and the application of that lesson to all of us:

“The Torah did not mention ‘G’d-fearing men’ because only Hashem knows what is in man’s heart.” (Torah Gems, Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Parsha Yithro, page 131)

May we, the B’nai Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them at leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized gunpoint, that our dear brethren Jonathan Pollard and Sholom Rubashkin, as well as the other MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem V’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bim hay v’yameinu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!

Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of the Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.