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Mishpatim 5763-2003

“Justice! Justice!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Mishpatim, contains an abundance of laws that cover a vast array of Jewish civil and criminal jurisprudence.

R’ Bunim of P’schis’cha (1765-1827, Chasidic leader in Poland) brilliantly interprets the verse in Deuteronomy 16:20 “Tzedek tzedek tir’dof,” Thou shalt surely pursue justice–-that one must pursue righteousness only through righteous means! In light of this exalted standard, this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, provides some of the most enduring examples of the pursuit of pristine justice through righteousness.

The Torah posits that the effort to attain ultimate justice must commence with the fundamental principle (Exodus 23:7): “Mid’var sheker tir’chak,” Jews are required to distance themselves from false reports. Similarly, a proper judicial system cannot tolerate unfair advantages to certain citizens, hence the words of Exodus 23:8: “V’sho’chad lo tee’kach,” You may not accept a bribe, are essential and fundamental laws required for the establishment of a just society.

Once the Torah establishes the fundamentals, the Bible sets a judicial standard far above what jurists conventionally refer to as “justice.” A seemingly simple verse such as Exodus 23:7, “V’nah’kee v’tza’dik al ta’ha’rog,” You shall not execute the innocent or the righteous, has broad implications. With this verse, the world is introduced for the first time, to the concept of “double jeopardy.” The Torah asserts that if a person was found guilty in a court of law, and new evidence is uncovered indicating that the defendant is innocent, we must return the previously convicted person for a new trial. However, if the defendant was acquitted, and new evidence of guilt comes to light, we may not reopen the case. The Torah reassures us that G-d is the ultimate dispenser of justice and will punish those who deserve it. Mortals may think that a guilty person is escaping justice, yet the verse clearly concludes, “Kee lo atz’dik rasha,” I [G-d] will not exonerate the wicked!

Equally revolutionary is the statement of Exodus 23:6 “Lo tah’teh mishpat ev’yon’cha b’ree’voh,” You shall not pervert the judgment of your destitute person in his grievance. The Rambam (1135-1204, leading Spanish sage) explains this verse to mean that if a person is destitute in the performance of commandments, that even if the defendant is a person who is truly not righteous, nevertheless, we are not permitted to rule against him because of his personal demeanor or behavior. Throughout the Torah we learn that a person’s personal status is not to be a consideration in the administration of justice. “Justice” is to be determined solely on the basis of a person’s guilt or innocence, not a person’s character. Hence, Jewish law prohibits adjudication on the basis of wealth or poverty, goodness or evil, only purely on the basis of justice. One may be tempted to argue that before us stands a poor person who needs to be sustained, let this wealthy defendant pay the few dollars that the impoverished fellow claims to be owed. The Torah declares: Absolutely not! Only the merits of the case may determine a person’s judgment.

So while historically there are many sources of law that have contributed to our understanding of contemporary jurisprudence, the Torah was there in the forefront of time, establishing fundamental and revolutionary guidelines for all humankind.

Let us pray that all of civilization will recognize and implement the Torah’s fundamental and far-reaching principles of justice. Let us pray that justice will become the cornerstone of all society, and let us pray that evil will soon be extirpated both from our world and from our consciousness.

May you be blessed.