Justice and Righteousness
This week’s parsha emphasizes, albeit in an indirect fashion, the litigious
nature of human society and the requirement for the appointment of judges to
decide disputes and for police to enforce those decisions. A perfect world
needs no judges or courts, police or bailiffs. Our very imperfect world
cannot reasonably hope to function and exist in their absence. Law and order
are the requirements for a commercially and civilly successful society.
As such, judges and courts are the necessary check to prevent chaos and
anarchy, But the Torah points out that there must always be necessary
restraint on the powers of the courts and the police as well. And that check
to judicial power is called justice and righteousness, as these concepts are
defined and detailed by the Torah law and its traditions.
There is a special burden imposed by the Torah upon the judicial process, to
somehow achieve not simply legally correct decisions, but a broader
obligation to accomplish a sense of righteousness and justice in its general
society. And the courts are bidden to be pursuers of justice and
righteousness and not to satisfy themselves with seemingly correct legal
conclusions, which narrowly construed, unfortunately can many times somehow
lead to injustice and tragedy.
There are many examples in the history of the Jewish people where judicial
and even rabbinic decisions, seemingly legally correct, led to terrible
disputes and tragedies simply because the general public did not feel that
justice was done in the matter. Without the palpable presence of justice and
righteousness being present in our court system, we become a very divisive
and spiritually sterile society.
Jewish tradition encourages compromise over hard and fast judicial decision.
In fact, many great Jewish figures of the past and present, though
personally involved in the world and practice of commerce, have prided
themselves as never having been involved in any dispute that was submitted
to a court of law or to a rabbinic tribunal.
The emotional and monetary costs of pursuing a matter of contention in a
judicial manner are telling and long lasting. This is especially true when a
family or partnership dispute is involved. Those scars are never completely
healed. When I attended law school many decades ago we were taught to abide
by an adage attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “A poor settlement is still
better than a good lawsuit.”
Disputes disturb our sense of ego and therefore we feel that we must
prevail, sometimes at enormous personal cost. We become captivated by the
sense of our legal rights and lose sight that justice, righteousness and
inner harmony can be better served by realizing that less is more and that
legal victories are many times more pyrrhic than real. The prophet Yeshayahu
calls to those that “pursue righteousness and justice” for they are the ones
who truly seek “to find Godliness in their lives.”
We need judges, courts, and police in all human societies. Nevertheless, the
wise person will regard them as matters of last resort and not as the prime
solution to the frictions and problems of everyday life.
Rabbi Berel Wein