In Ethics of our Fathers we are told to research, ponder and analyze the words of the Torah, for all of life’s mysteries can be found hidden within. Thus, I take the liberty of reading this week’s Torah portion and relating it to the current situation in the United States regarding law enforcement and enforcers. From a Jewish perspective, all world citizens are required to follow the seven laws of Noah, which includes the mandatory establishment of a judicial system. Rules and regulations are the only means by which we can ensure that all walks of humanity coexist.
The first words in this week’s Parsha are: Shoftim v’shotrim titen lecha b’chol sh’arecha – Judges and officers shall be placed in all your cities. The Torah teaches the importance of not only having laws but also the necessary means for their implementation. However, an addendum is placed at the end of the verse: And they shall judge with righteousness. We are thus exhorted to appoint highly skilled professionals who are capable of guiding citizens with jurisprudence and not simply appointing political favorites. All too often we find even those that create or implement laws face personal conflict in confronting the lofty principles they aim to protect. Recently Eric Holder spoke to the people of Ferguson stating, “I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man.” “I’ve confronted this myself” is an admission to contradictory attitudes in his quest to mediate the racial divide. However his words may have created a dilemma that is not easily overcome.
The next verse continues by stating: You shall not wrest judgment nor shall you respect individual persons. In other words, realizing the potential for political machinations, the Torah is urging the judicial system to ensure that politics and personal agendas do not make a mockery of the legal system. It also implies that a judge may not use race, color, socioeconomic status, or social inequalities as justification for adjudicating in favor or against anyone. I am not casting aspersions nor do I have any knowledge of what exactly transpired in Ferguson, though similar to most Americans, I have biases that may cloud my thought process. Thus I do not want to ponder innocence or guilt of the police or the victim; I just think it is important to judge with transparency and equality.
The verse continues and states: A judge may not take a bribe, for a gift has the ability to pervert justice and blind even the most righteous of judges. A bribe may not significantly change the legal mind, but it could potentially generate feelings of sympathy, compassion, or even indebtedness, that may impact their decision making. Also, a bribe does not need to be monetary. It may be a pat on the shoulder by an important official. It may be a wish to garner support for post-judicial employment. It may be family or community pressure, or perhaps allowing ones religious convictions to influence judgment in a case. Any gentle intimidation that may impact the outcome of a case is indeed a derivative of the commandment to not take bribes.
And finally the Torah states: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice Justice shall you follow. In other words, both prosecution and defense are equally mandated to pursue the truth. The Talmud states that even the prosecution must use “tzedek” in seeking to defend the innocence of the defendant. It less a job than a calling; passive omissions albeit legally acceptable is biblically prohibited. The word “tirdof” to pursue, challenges the seekers of justice to pursue what is right regardless of the outcome and ramifications.
Dues have been sent out so we all are keenly aware that the festival of scales is only a month away; Rosh Hashanah is the time humanity is judged for the year. We ask that our spiritual prosecutors judge us with “tzedek” and deal with us fairly but with integrity. However, to hedge our bet, we also seek their leniency in sentencing by asking for clemency and understanding. We ask that guidelines that we have established in judging others be the basis for our own assessment. Indeed we ask the Almighty to consider our empathy and sensitivity and to give the benefit of doubt even to those of us that are undeserving.
And more so if we add the letter “yud” the smallest of all the Hebrew letters it changes the word “tzedek” into the word “tzadik” or righteous person. It serves to change those who are being judged to those who those who are truly righteous; it serves to change those who worry about being judged into those who will be immediately be written into the book of life. May the New Year truly usher in a year that ועמך כולם צדיקים that our entire nation is deemed to be tzaddikim.
Rabbi Jack Engel