“Justice! Justice!”
(updated and revised from Mishpatim 5763-2003)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

Rabbi Simcha Bunam brilliantly interprets the verse in Deuteronomy 16:20, צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף, You will 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 begin with the fundamental principle articulated in Exodus 23:7: מִדְּבַר שֶׁקֶר תִּרְחָק, Jews are required to distance themselves from false reports. Again, citing Rav Bunam of Peschischa, the commentary of the ArtScroll Stone Chumash states, “So much does G-d abhor falsehood, that we are commanded to stay far away from even an appearance of a lie.”  This is reminiscent of the ethical conduct expected from attorneys today who are admonished to avoid even the semblance of an impropriety.

Similarly, a proper judicial system cannot tolerate unfair advantages to favored citizens, hence the words of Exodus 23:8: וְשֹׁחַד לֹא תִקָּח, You may not accept a bribe, is an essential and fundamental rule required for the establishment of a truly 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, וְנָקִי וְצַדִּיק אַל תַּהֲרֹג, 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 previously found guilty in a court of law, and new evidence is uncovered indicating that the defendant is innocent, the previously-convicted person must be returned for a new trial. However, if the defendant was acquitted, and new evidence of guilt comes to light, the case may not be reopened. The Torah reassures us that the Al-mighty 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, כִּי לֹא אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע, I [G-d] will not exonerate the wicked!

Equally revolutionary is the statement of Exodus 23:6, לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפַּט אֶבְיֹנְךָ בְּרִיבוֹ, You shall not pervert the judgment of your destitute person in his grievance. The Rambam, 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, the judicial system is, nevertheless, not permitted to rule against him/her because of their personal demeanor or behavior.

Throughout the Torah we are taught 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, so 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.

While it is probably accurate to conclude that, historically, many sources of law have contributed to our contemporary understanding of secular jurisprudence, the Torah was there long before the others, in the forefront of time, establishing fundamental and revolutionary guidelines for all humankind.

May the time soon come, when all civilization will recognize the Torah’s fundamental and far-reaching principles of justice and incorporate them into their own judicial systems. Let us pray that pure and righteous justice will soon become the cornerstone of all societies, and that all evil and wrongdoing will vanish from off the face of the earth.

May you be blessed.