In Parashat Devarim, Moses recalls a moment of crisis when herealized that he, by himself, could not lead the Israelites. At 1:12-17, Moses remembers saying that he cannot bear your disputes and bickering by himself. To aid him, he appoints “wise, discerning, and experienced” tribal leaders as judges. Moses continues saying that he charged them to hear out the people and to decide justly between them, Israelites or strangers. Moses commanded them to be impartial in judgment, hearing out low and high alike. He told them to “Fear no man for judgment is God’s.”
In commenting on the difficult burden of making judgments, the early rabbis, many of whom were presiding judges, compare the responsibility to dealing with fire. “If you come too close, you will be burnt; if you stray too far, you will be cold. The art of making judgments”, they conclude, “is finding the right distance.” Perspective is critical in rendering fair decisions. Yet, how does one achieve balanced independence? How does one screen out prejudice, bias, and the inclination to favor one over another?
As we prepare for Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, Monday night, the Prophets tell us the reason the Temple was destroyed was because the people stopped caring for one another and began to turn on each other with unjust behavior. The lesson from this mournful day is to find a way to be favorable toward one another.
In the Midrash Mechilta on Yitro, Moses suggests three significant rules for making judgments: “hear out” those with conflicting views; do not “show partiality to low or high”; and “fear” no one when you are ready to render your decision. Using these guidelines, interpreters of Torah elaborate on the art of achieving justice.
The emphasis of Jewish tradition upon hearing and judging disputes justly is not simply for judges. The guidelines also apply to all: friends, couples, parents, children, business partners, colleagues, students, teammates, etc—all who must inevitably deal with the clashing opinions or claims of others. If a third party listens with patience to both sides, does not cut off discussion but asks questions that clarify matters, pays attention to the nuances of each party’s claims, and strives to treat all disputants equally, there is a good chance that a reasonable settlement will be reached.
The ethical rules for judging the argument of others, identified by our Torah portion, built as a necessity by our observance of Tisha B’Av and expanded upon by our commentators throughout the last 2000 years, offer a wise path to justice. Since making judgments about the claims of others is “dealing with fire”, these important guidelines may save us from being “burned.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham