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לימוד תורה

We are in the latter part of the Chofesh HaGadol *1

The Parshah and its implementation – Parashat Shoftim 5783

Rabbi Eliezer Haim Shenvald

We are at the end of the 'Summer Vacation' (Summer Holiday- called in Hebrew: Chofesh HaGadol – The Big Freedom - Liberty - Recess).

However, it is not school break but our personal freedom that we want to talk about while connecting to our Parasha.

Some see John Stuart Mill *2, the 19th century English social philosopher, as the one who brought Freedom of Expression to the world. In his book "On Liberty" and in his public and parliamentary work. However, his approach to individual freedom is utilitarian and not value oriented.

In Judaism, 'freedom' as a fundamental value preceded it by thousands of years. Judaism considers man to have been created in G-d's image and is not attached to anything in the world. Therefore, human nature strives for freedom, to be the master of himself and not to be linked and dependent on other human beings. To be true to oneself, to his inner truth, to his faith, and values. Flesh and blood human beings like him should not dictate him what to say, what to think, what is right and what is not:

החירות הצביונית היא אותו הרוח הנשאה, שהאדם וכן העם בכלל מתרומם על ידה להיות נאמן להעצמיות הפנימית שלו, להתכונה הנפשית של צלם אלהים אשר בקרבו

"The fundamental character of freedom is the elevated spirit that raises up an individual and the entire nation to be loyal to their inner essence, to the soul’s quality of the Divine image within". (Olat Reiyah II -Pesach) 

Rabbi Kook ZT'L, (whose memory we'll commemorate on Sunday 3 Elul), dealt a lot with the issue of 'liberty' and 'freedom'.

The quest for 'freedom' started powerful processes in the world. Today it is accepted as an agreed value around the world. However, it seems that in recent times humanity is at the end of 'Chofesh HaGadol', entering an era of 'conditional freedom', striving for 'truth', narratives and 'true for now' - provided it serves the needed agenda.

There are increasing and expanding phenomena of 'silencing unpopular views'. Precisely for those who raise the value of 'freedom' and fight against 'coercion', 'freedom' comes into consideration only on condition that they have the 'liberty' to conduct themselves according to their own values. And those whose values are different deserve their 'freedom' to be limited. Precisely those who claim, 'freedom of speech', instead of encouraging free, respectful, and attentive discourse, are willing to allow 'freedom of speech' only to those who express the same values as them and those who do not, deserve to be silenced and limit their freedom of expression.

"Man is naturally a social beingthat by virtue of his nature he seeks to form communities" (Guide for the Perplexed Part 2 - 40). This allows him to exist and have quality of life, within which he can also realize the values of giving and kindness. However, he does not want to live in a human 'herd', being led, conditioned to be uniform in thought. Whoever deviates from it is denounced, and thrown out, creating fear among those who may follow his ways.

Men live in organizational frameworks, workplaces, academia, and professional unions. Membership in them brings great benefit, but in recent times, instead of encouraging free discourse, they have become coercive, forcing conformity sometimes even in a violent way, while instilling fear, and people worry about losing promotions and even their jobs.

The Parasha opens with the commandment to appoint Judges:

שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכׇל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ ... וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃

"You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements … and they shall govern the people with due justice". (Devarim 16:18)

The commandment:

לֹא־תַטֶּ֣ה מִשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים וְלֹא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם׃

"You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just". (19)

'Bribe' is not only monetary, it is any kind of benefit, also psychological and social. The fear is that an external factor might influence and affect the judgment and the absolute commitment to truth and justice. That is why the judges were ordered to reflect the truth without fear:

לֹ֤א תָג֙וּרוּ֙ מִפְּנֵי־אִ֔ישׁ כִּ֥י הַמִּשְׁפָּ֖ט לֵאלֹקים ה֑וּא

"Fear no human being, for judgment is G-d’s." (Devarim 1:17) 

לא תגורו מפני איש. לֹא תִּירְאוּ;

"Ye shall not fear (any man)— Another explanation of לא תגורו: Ye shall not gather in (shall not restrain) your words before any man". (Rashi ibid).

The judge is obliged to tell the truth even if it is not the most popular one and he may pay a personal price for it:

שמא תאמר מתירא אני מאיש פלוני שמא יהרגני או שמא ידליק את גדישי או שמא יקצץ את נטיעותי תלמוד לומר לא תגורו מפני איש

"And the language of the Sifrei is"'Do not fear' - lest you say, 'I am afraid of that man, lest he kill me, or lest he burn my stacks or lest he cut down my plants.' [Hence] we learn to say, 'do not fear any man'."(Sifrei Devarim 17:5)

Therefore, the judges should have:

לֵב אַמִּיץ לְהַצִּיל עָשׁוּק מִיַּד עוֹשְׁקוֹ

"They should have a courageous heart to save an oppressed person from the one oppressing him…" (Prisha Choshen Mishpat 7:15:1)

He must not overrule his opinion even towards those greater than him:

שיושב לפני רבו - ובא דין לפני רבו ולא לפניו וראה התלמיד זכות לעני וחובה לעשיר ורבו טועה בדין מניין שלא יחלוק כבוד לרבו וישתוק תלמוד לומר לא תגורו מפני איש:

"From where is it derived that a student who is sitting before his teacher and he sees a point of merit for a poor person or liability for a wealthy person, from where is it derived that he should not be silent? As it is stated: “You shall not be afraid before any man”; he should fear neither his teacher nor the wealthy litigant". (Rashi on Sanhedrin 6b:13:1(

The principle of the commitment to tell the truth and 'not to fear' is also true for the public arena. And from this we should learn, even if it is not simple at all, to keep the 'Chofesh HaGadol'.

*1 The Chofesh HaGadol is the Hebrew name for the Summer Vacation. The name is linguistically incorrect, as it is a חופשה vacation and not חופש freedom , but this is how it became part of the spoken language.

*2 John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) influential philosopher, economist, politician.

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