"Truth, Justice and Peace Shall You Judge..."

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




"Truth, Justice and Peace Shall You Judge..."

Summarized by Dov Karoll


The Midrash Rabba (on Shemot 30:3) explains the relationship between Mishpatim and the previous parshiot. It notes that the giving of the Torah (in Yitro) is surrounded by lists of dinim, civil laws. It is preceded by the command of dinim at Mara, "Sham sam lo chok u-mishpat" ("There He established for them there law and justice" - Shemot 15:25; see Rashi there), and succeeded by the lengthy code appearing in Mishpatim. This is due to the principle that the Torah is to be found "be-tokh netivot mishpat" (Mishlei 8:20), within the paths of justice. In the course of Mishpatim, this justice is given a highly structured form, with specific laws dictating the way justice is to be implemented.

Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachmani states (Sandhedrin 7a) that a judge who rules in a strictly truthful manner causes hashra'at Shekhina, God's presence to be more closely felt. He bases this upon the verse (Tehillim 82:1): "Elokim nitzav ba-adat Kel, be-kerev elohim yishpot," "God is found in a community of Godliness, amongst judges He will judge." He adds that one who does not judge truthfully causes a decrease in hashra'at Shekhina, based upon the verse (Tehillim 12:6), "Mi-shod aniyim me-ankat evyonim ata akum yomar Hashem..." - "From the crime against the poor and the crying out of the paupers I will now leave, says God." Based on this gemara, it appears that a judge must be certain to adhere to the strict letter of the law, not leaving any room for compassion or compromise.

It appears that this hard-line approach to justice is not universally accepted. The gemara (Sandhedrin 6b) records a dispute regarding the desirability of a judge performing peshara (compromise in monetary cases). Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Yossi Ha-gelili says that it is forbidden to compromise, and whoever does so is a sinner. This opinion is in line with the view presented before, that any straying from the strict letter of the law has highly negative ramifications. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, however, disagrees. He says that it is a mitzva to perform peshara, based on the verse (Zekharia 8:15), "Emet u-mishpat shalom shiftu be-sha'areikhem" - "Truth, justice and peace shall you judge in your gates." Rabbi Yehoshua asks: how can all of these elements exist together? When there is justice there is no peace, and when there is peace there is no justice! He answers that the means to attain this balance is by reaching a fair compromise. According to Rabbi Yehoshua, the way for the ideals of justice and peace to coexist is by straying from the strict letter of the law. The existence of other factors, such as peace, will cause, and should cause, the court's decisions to be different from that which the law literally dictates.

The apparent contradiction between justice and peace may be true inside the court, but regarding the setting up of society, the opposite is true. The more laws there are to govern activity, the more problems can be avoided. For example, when people are allowed to travel freely, without any traffic lights, there are going to be many more accidents. The existence of a framework of traffic laws limits the chaos on the road and allows for safe travel. Analogously, in the financial realm, the existence of laws governing trade can help prevent problems from arising in the first place.

The Ramban (21:1) expounds a related idea. He states that Parashat Mishpatim comes to clarify the last of the ten commandments - "Lo tachmod," "Thou shalt not covet." If one does not know who rightfully owns a house or field, he will covet it and take it for himself. Therefore, Parashat Mishpatim, with its civil laws, explains who has rightful ownership over various items, avoiding that problem. Similarly, if one knows the halakhot which govern monetary matters, he will know whether or not his claim is a good one and worth pursuing. The more he is acquainted with the law, the more he will be able to maintain peace through the decision in court.

However, compromise can lead to problems on both the personal and communal levels. On the personal level, one may feel that he deserves all of the money in question, and there is no reason for him to give up any part of it. He will claim that he simply demands that the strict truth be applied. He feels a need to stand up for his "principles" and personal rights. However, deep down, often such a person is really interested either in the money, or in having something to argue about. On top of that, lawyers who can make more money from a court case than from an out-of-court settlement encourage the person to pursue his claim, further compounding the problem, and making it harder to achieve peace. This route has to be weighed carefully, and should not be taken in every situation.

Similarly, on a communal level, there are many issues on which the religious community takes a stand against the general community (the same could be said of other groups or parties). Some of them are critical issues, upon which we should not bend, and should not compromise our ideals. However, there are certain issues which are not entirely central in and of themselves, on which the leaders decide to take a strong, stubborn stand against the rest of the community. The problem with this is that the element of unity is ignored. Our general attitude has to be one of unity and acting together as a complete Jewish community. While there are certain principles upon which we should not compromise, there are other issues where we should strive toward peace and unity, rather than stubbornly insisting upon strict application of our view. Our attitude should not be that if we "give in" on less important issues, we will be forced to do the same regarding central ones. Rather, we should try to work together with the general community, dissenting only on issues which are of significance.

(Originally delivered Seuda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim 5757.)



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