Monday, August 5, 2013

Justice is Your Business!

Parshat Shoftim
Dvarim 16:18-21:9
4 Elul 5773 / August. 9-10, 2013

Justice is Your Business!
by Damon Mathias, MH Dallas

This week’s portion begins with the commandment from God that: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” Deuteronomy 16:18.

The verse provides us with two precepts, first there must be magistrates and officials and secondly they must govern with justice. A few verses later in Deuteronomy 17:14-5 God addresses another “branch” of government: “If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me, You shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God.’ ”  Why does God mandate the appointment of judges and leave the appointment of a sovereign as discretionary? The Torah is teaching us that this particular form of government is far less important than the presence of an independent judiciary which is a fundamental and indispensable part of a civilized society. The manner in which “executive” power is manifested is subject to change and should at times be challenged, as Noam Chomsky presciently states:

There is no reason to accept the doctrines crafted to sustain power and privilege, or to believe that we are constrained by mysterious and unknown social laws. These are simply decisions made within institutions that are subject to human will and that must face the test of legitimacy. And if they do not meet the test, they can be replaced by other institutions that are more free and more just, as has happened often in the past.

The necessity of a fair and impartial judiciary however, is indispensable. It is the most fundamental manifestation of the superiority of reason in civilized society and is what differentiates man from beast. Whether the children of Israel are ruled by prophets or kings the requirements for the judiciary remain the same.

           God tells us through the prophet Jeremiah (21:12): “Execute justice in the morning and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor!” The use of the word “morning” in this verse teachings us two very important lessons: 1) just as the morning is the first part of the day so to when executing justice make sure that it is performed before all else, it is the most important task and has priority above all other matters; 2) the morning also represents the transition from darkness to light, teaching us to administer justice when such actions are transparent and clearly seen. Justice should not be administered in the darkness such as a private closed hearing, rather proceedings should be unconcealed with the “light” shone upon the rulings we are making. In the Talmud (tractate Sanhedrin 7a/b) Rabbi Josiah explains the use of morning to mean “If the judgment you are about to give is clear to you as the morning [light], give it; but if not, do not give it.” It is only when we execute justice in such fashion that we can expect the “spoiled to be delivered out of the hand of the oppressor.”        

           The second commandment of the opening verse that “you shall govern the people with due justice” is expounded upon a few verses later in the parasha in verse 19, when God commands: “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” Throughout history there have been stark examples of civilizations that have ran afoul of the biblical imperative of implementing a fair and impartial judicial system. The fall of Rome can be attributed to civilization failing to heed this call as Plutarch wrote of Rome’s descent: “The abuse of buying and selling votes crept in and money began to play an important part in determining elections. Later on, however, this process of corruption spread to the law courts and to the army, and finally, when even the sword became enslaved by the power of gold, the republic was subjected to the rule of emperors.” The judiciary was to be the bulwark preventing corruption from the officials to the army, but once the judiciary was corrupted the empire unraveled.

           When reading the opening verses of Parashat Shoftim dealing with the judiciary a seemingly odd two verses appear at the end of Chapter 16 (“You shall not set up a sacred--post any kind of pole beside the altar of the Lord your God that you may make, --or erect a stone pillar; for such the Lord your God detests” 16:21-22) The two verses don’t seem on their face to have much of anything to do with the previous verses (“Justice Justice shall you pursue” & the imperative against bribery). However, upon closer examination the verses correlate beautifully. The Torah is teaching us that the altar and the judge’s bench are both holy and just as the erection of pillars & posts near the altar is hateful to God, so too the presence of bribery in the justice system is equally abominable. The idea that material should influence truth and justice is just as much idol worship as the placement of an “asherah” near the altar of God.

           This Shabbat I ask that we meditate on the first verse of this portion. There is a positive commandment for the nation as a whole “You shall appoint magistrates and official...and they shall govern the people with justice.” We must ask ourselves how involved are we in the process of “appointing” our judges? Are we doing our part to insure that they are governing with justice? Although the judges are commanded to “govern the people with justice,” since it is through our “appointment” that they obtain power we are all accountable for allowing indiscretion into our court system.  “Justice Justice shall you pursue!”      צדק צדק תרדוף



Post a Comment