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לימוד תורה

Public trust begins with its Judges

Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald - Parasha in our everyday life - Shoftim – 5781

Various studies and surveys indicate that in recent years there has been a dramatic decline in 'public trust' in the legal system. This is a problem that endangers the foundations of a proper society. The enforcement of the judicial system does not require the consent of its litigants. As a public system, however, one of the sources of its power and status is 'public trust', its integrity, matter-of-factness and its pursuit of justice. The litigants will find it difficult to accept the ruling for their duty if they are not convinced that the only consideration that guided the legal system in their case is the administration of justice.

What caused the erosion in the Justice system’s status? Some blame this on leveled criticism at the legal system, new controllers, stakeholders, whose decisions do not match their interests or their worldview. In their view, this is an unjustified criticism that undermines the status of the judicial system. On the other hand, for critics, there are weighty claims against the conduct of the system; towards people from within the system who do not set a personal example in their personal and legal conduct, towards the conduct of the prosecution system that they see as 'selective enforcers', towards the entry of the judiciary into areas that should be under the exclusive authority of the legislature, and unwillingness of the judiciary to be criticized and improve, and by mixing considerations arising from a worldview, which is not acceptable to large sections of the public, into considerations of judgment.

In our Parasha, the Torah outlines the establishment of a Torah legal system. Among other things, it describes how it should be conducted so that it does not lose 'public trust'.

שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכׇל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ … וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק…  צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ…

“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements…, and they shall govern the people with due justice…. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land… (Devarim 16:18-20)

In practice:

מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שֶׁל תּוֹרָה לְמַנּוֹת שׁוֹפְטִים וְשׁוֹטְרִים בְּכָל מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה וּבְכָל פֶּלֶךְ וּפֶלֶךְ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים טז יח) "שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶיךָ". שׁוֹפְטִים אֵלּוּ הַדַּיָּנִים הַקְּבוּעִין בְּבֵית דִּין וּבַעֲלֵי דִּינִין בָּאִים לִפְנֵיהֶם.

“It is a Torah Commandment to set up courts of law in every district and every city, as it is written: “Judges and officers shalt thou appoint unto thee” … for your tribes in all the cities. Magistrates are the religious court judges…” (Mishneh Torah- The Sanhedrin and the Penalties within their Jurisdiction 1:1)  

The special wording of the Torah in the appointment of the judges – ‘You shall give yourself’ raises the question: "It is difficult, should have been written ‘Magistrates and officials You shall appoint for yourself’ like a King: שׂ֣וֹם תָּשִׂ֤ים עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ  “appoint a King over yourself” (Rabbi Yeshayahu ben Avraham Ha-Levi Horowitz - Shelah HaKaddosh). For is this appointment of judges over the public similar to the appointment of a king?

The Midrash learns from the fact that the judge himself must “set a personal example" in his conduct towards the issues he discusses:

שׁוֹפְטִים וְשׁוֹטְרִים, צָרִיךְ שֶׁיִּהְיוּ הַשּׁוֹפְטִים בַּעֲלֵי זְרוֹעַ בְּמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים. שֶׁכָּךְ עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה, וַיִּבְחַר מֹשֶׁה אַנְשֵׁי חַיִל (שמות יח, כה), בְּתוֹרָה וּבְמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים וּבִגְבוּרָה. וְצָרִיךְ שֶׁיִּהְיוּ נְקִיִּים מִכָּל מִשְׁפָּט, שֶׁלֹּא יְהֵא לְאָדָם פִּתְחוֹן פֶּה עֲלֵיהֶם. כְּמֹשֶׁה שֶׁאָמַר לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא חֲמוֹר אֶחָד מֵהֶם נָשָׂאתִי (במדבר טז, טו). וּשְׁמוּאֵל שֶׁאָמַר, הִנְנִי עֲנוּ בִי נֶגֶד ה' וְנֶגֶד מְשִׁיחוֹ אֶת שׁוֹר מִי לָקַחְתִּי וַחֲמוֹר מִי לָקַחְתִּי וְגוֹ' (ש״‎א יב, ג). הֱוֵי אוֹמֵר, שׁוֹפְטִים וְשׁוֹטְרִים, שֶׁלֹּא יְהֵא בָּהֶם דָבָר שֶׁל פְּסוּלוּת. (תנחומא שופטים ג).

"The judges need to be men of strength through good deeds. As this is what Moshe did: "And Moshe chose men of valor" (Shmot 18:25), in Torah, in good deeds and in courage. And they need to be clean of any infraction, such that there not be a claim (literally, opening of the mouth) for a person against them. [This is] as with Moshe, who said to Israel (Bamidbar 16:15), "I have not raised up a donkey from one of them"; and Shmuel, who said (I Shmuel 12:3), "Here I am, testify against me in the presence of Hashem and in the presence of His anointed one; whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey have I taken, etc." I would thus say, "Judges and officials [appoint for yourself]," that there should not be any matter of disqualification in them. (Midrash Tanchuma Shoftim 3)

The Midrash learned from the change in the language of the Pasuk ‘give for yourself' that the Torah commands the Dayan to conduct himself according to the law before he judges others: "This is a warning for the Dayan! First give judgment to yourself and then to others! As saying- “Reprimand yourself and then admonish others'' (Etz Yosef on Tanchuma ibid, in the name of the Shelah HaKaddosh).

This way, the public's trust in the system will also be maintained, as the Midrash continues:

מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר, שֶׁהָיָה לוֹ אִילָן נָטוּעַ בְּתוֹךְ שָׂדֵהוּ וְנוֹפָיו נוֹטוֹת לְשָׂדֶה אַחֵר. בָּא אָדָם אֶחָד וְקָבַל לְפָנָיו וְאָמַר, אִילָנוֹ שֶׁל אִישׁ פְּלוֹנִי נוֹטֶה לְתוֹךְ שָׂדִי. אָמַר לֵיהּ: לְךָ וּבוֹא לְמָחָר. אָמַר לֵיהּ: כָּל הַדִּינִין הַבָּאִים לְפָנֶיךָ, מִיָּד אַתָּה פּוֹסֵק, וְדִינִי אַתָּה מְאַחֵר. מֶה עָשָׂה רַבִּי חֲנִינָא, מִיָּד שָׁלַח פּוֹעֲלָיו וְקָצַץ אֶת הָאִילָן שֶׁהָיָה בְּתוֹךְ שָׂדֵהוּ וְנוֹטֶה לְשָׂדֶה אַחֵר. לְמָחָר בָּא אוֹתוֹ הָאִישׁ לְפָנָיו לַדִּין. אָמַר לוֹ לְבַעַל דִּינוֹ, צָרִיךְ אַתָּה לָקוּץ אוֹתוֹ. אָמַר לוֹ: וְלָמָּה אִילָן שֶׁלְּךָ עֲנָפָיו נוֹטִין לְשָׂדֶה אַחֵר. אָמַר לוֹ: צֵא וּרְאֵה כְּשֵׁם שֶׁאַתָּה רוֹאֶה אֶת שֶׁלִּי, כָּךְ עֲשֵׂה אֶת שֶׁלְּךָ. מִיָּד הָלַךְ וְעָשָׂה כָּךְ. לְפִיכָךְ כְּתִיב: שׁוֹפְטִים וְשׁוֹטְרִים, שֶׁלֹּא יְהֵא בַּשּׁוֹפֵט דָּבָר שֶׁל פְּסֹלֶת.

There was a case with Rabbi Chanina ben Elazar who had an inclining tree on his field, such that the branches were inclined over the field of someone else. A man came in front of him and complained and said, "The tree of x is inclined over my field." He said to him, "Go, and come back tomorrow." He said to him, "All the cases that come before you, you judge immediately. But my case you are delaying?" What did Rabbi Chanina do? He immediately sent workers to cut his tree that was in his field, but the branches were inclined over the field of someone else. The next day, that [plaintiff from the previous day] came for judgement. [Rabbi Chanina] said to his opponent, "You need to cut it." He [answered] him, "So why are the branches of your tree inclining over the field of someone else?" He said to him, "Go and see. The same way you see mine, so do to yours." He immediately went and did so. Hence it is written, "Judges and officials," that there should not be a matter of disqualification in the judge. (Midrash Tanchuma cont. ibid)

This can be seen as well in the Gemara:

רַבִּי יַנַּאי הֲוָה לֵיהּ אִילָן הַנּוֹטֶה לִרְשׁוּת הָרַבִּים הֲוָה הָהוּא גַּבְרָא דַּהֲוָה לֵיהּ נָמֵי אִילָן הַנּוֹטֶה לִרְשׁוּת הָרַבִּים אֲתוֹ בְּנֵי רְשׁוּת הָרַבִּים הֲווֹ קָא מְעַכְּבִי עִילָּוֵיהּ אֲתָא לְקַמֵּיהּ דְּרַבִּי יַנַּאי אֲמַר לֵיהּ זִיל הָאִידָּנָא וְתָא לִמְחַר בְּלֵילְיָא שַׁדַּר קַצְיֵיהּ לְהָהוּא דִּידֵיהּ לִמְחַר אֲתָא לְקַמֵּיהּ אֲמַר לֵיהּ זִיל קוֹץ אָמַר לֵיהּ הָא מָר נָמֵי אִית לֵיהּ אָמַר לֵיהּ זִיל חֲזִי אִי קוּץ דִּידִי קוֹץ דִּידָךְ אִי לָא קוּץ דִּידִי לָא תִּקּוֹץ אַתְּ מֵעִיקָּרָא מַאי סְבַר וּלְבַסּוֹף מַאי סְבַר מֵעִיקָּרָא סְבַר נִיחָא לְהוּ לִבְנֵי רְשׁוּת הָרַבִּים דְּיָתְבִי בְּטוּלֵּיהּ כֵּיוָן דַּחֲזָא דְּקָא מְעַכְּבִי שַׁדַּר קַצְיֵיהּ וְלֵימָא לֵיהּ זִיל קוֹץ דִּידָךְ וַהֲדַר אֶקּוֹץ דִּידִי מִשּׁוּם דְּרֵישׁ לָקִישׁ דְּאָמַר הִתְקוֹשְׁשׁוּ וָקוֹשּׁוּ קְשׁוֹט עַצְמְךָ וְאַחַר כָּךְ קְשׁוֹט אֲחֵרִים:

The Gemara relates: Rabbi Yannai had a tree that was leaning into the public domain. There was a certain man who also had a tree that was leaning into the public domain, and the general public was preventing him from leaving it there, insisting he cut it down, as required by the mishna (27b). He came before Rabbi Yannai, who said to him: Go now, and come tomorrow. At night, Rabbi Yannai sent and had someone cut down that tree that belonged to him. The next day, that man came before Rabbi Yannai, who said to him: Go, cut down your tree. The man said to him: But the Master also has a tree that leans into the public domain. Rabbi Yannai said to him: Go and see: If mine is cut down, then cut yours down. If mine is not cut down, you do not have to cut yours down, either.

The Gemara asks: At the outset what did Rabbi Yannai hold, and ultimately, what did he hold? The Gemara replies: At the outset, he held that the general public is amenable to having the tree there, as they sit in its shade. Once he saw that they were preventing someone else who owned a tree from keeping his, he understood that it was only out of respect that they did not object to his tree being there. He therefore sent someone to cut it down. The Gemara asks: But why did he tell the man to return the next day? Let him say to him: Go cut down your tree, and then I will cut mine down. The Gemara answers: Because of the statement of Reish Lakish, who said: The verse states: “Gather yourselves together and gather [hitkosheshu vakoshu]” (Zephaniah 2:1), and this can be explained homiletically to mean: Adorn [keshot] yourself and afterward adorn others, i.e., act properly before requiring others to do so”. (Bava Batra 60a)

Another aspect that is also learned from the Pasuk about the judges, is that they should obey law as well and not think that they are above it:

פירוש שהממנים עצמן לא יאמרו בדעתן שלא תשלוט עליהם מקל מרדותו של שופט ושוטר כיון שהם הממנים אותו אלא שימנום לשפוט ולרדות אותם, והוא אומרו תתן לך פירוש עליך:

 תתן לך, "you shall give (appoint) for yourself; "This is an appeal to the people who appoint the judges and enforcers, not to think that since they have appointed them, they are themselves not subject to their authority. The meaning of לך then is equivalent to עליך, "over yourself." (Or HaChaim Devarim 16:18)

More reasons to yearn and pray from the bottom of our hearts:

הָשִֽׁיבָה שׁוֹפְ֒טֵֽינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁוֹנָה וְיוֹעֲצֵֽינוּ כְּבַתְּ֒חִלָּה…

“Restore our judges as before and our counselors as at first...” (Weekday Amidah, Shacharit)

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