The “law,” as it pertains to living as a Jew and as an American, fascinates me. Without “it” our lives would be in chaos. Our Torah portion, Mishpatim, begins a long set of laws we will explore for a number of weeks. Typically, one thinks of religion as a matter of spirituality. Our world differentiates between so called Church and State, but the Torah does not embrace that dichotomy. Every aspect of life is entwined, and religiousness arises from halachically correct business dealings no less than from the holiness in matters of ritual. Stated more succinctly, a Jews should be conscientious in adherence to “the law” as there is no distinction between the courtroom and the synagogue.
In Exodus 23:2 and 3 one might gloss over what seems so obvious until taking a moment to see how our sages and modern day commentators address it. “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse (wicked) testimony in a dispute so to pervert it in favor of the mighty—nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute.” Rashi, who typically takes no more than two sentences to amplify one sentence from the Torah, literally takes three pages on 23:2. For our purposes it can safely be said a judge should render his opinion predicated only on his understanding of the law AND the evidence without any preference to a poor litigant or “jumping on the bandwagon” to favor the majority.
The Talmud (Hullin 11a) establishes the core legal principal of majority rule. This is somewhat ironic given that the verse (Exodus 23:3) seems worried about the tyranny of the majority, but the rabbis discerned that the Torah says not to follow the majority “to do wrong”. Thus, the second principle is protection of the vulnerable, even if they are a minority. Still, a third principle is that the protection of the vulnerable minority cannot be extended so far that it causes injustice to the powerful.
It is remarkable that the Torah here anticipates what remains one of the most challenging aspects of democratic rule—how to respect the will of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority, especially when that minority is vulnerable. Some see verses two and three addressing the same concepts. I see them as opposites—verse two warns us not to join the crowd in favoring the mighty; verse three balances this by warning us not to show favoritism to the poor. Somewhere in the middle of these natural tendencies is where we find justice. A just society puts restraints on the powerful; but conversely it is fair and does not resort to “Robin Hood” maneuvers to take from the rich and give to the poor.
Taken together, our reading of two verses in Mishpatim yields a sense of great moral responsibility in the construction of a just society. Each judge must be independent, respectful of rich and poor, tipping the scales just slightly towards leniency so that a just and righteous society can emerge. Leadership requires not only wisdom and creativity but also principle and courage. What is true for judges and other civil leaders is equally applicable to those called to religious leadership.
It is my aim and should be ours as a congregation to create a balance, treating each person with the respect he or she deserves. As we read through the laws over the coming weeks, let us remember that no matter where we may stand in society, we all must find a way to live under the roof of our Mishpatim, our laws. It is achievable!
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham