Devarim

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Devarim

So much going on the the world! The Olympics, the U.S. elections, the
Israeli leadership transitions. . . and, of course, we’re starting to
read the book of D’varim, or Deuteronomy (the “second telling”), the
final book of the Torah. D’varim is essentially a long speech from
Moshe to the Israelites about where they’ve been and what they’ve done
and what they ought to do going forward. Included in his review is a
retelling of the appointment of judges from way back in the beginning
of Moshe’s leadership:

“I charged your magistrates at that time as follows, ‘Hear out your
fellow men, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite
or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and
high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God’s. And any matter that is
too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I will hear it.’
“(D’varim/Deuteronomy 1:16-17)

A more in-depth look at this passage would compare it to Exodus 18,
where the appointment of judges and the qualifications for the office
are described a bit differently, but let’s leave that for another
time. Today’s question is this: if the judges are given a clear
command to hear all persons fairly, why do they need a second
imperative to “fear no man?” Isn’t it enough to command the judges to
judge all people fairly- doesn’t that imply that they must not kowtow
to the powerful or strong?

By now anybody who’s smart enough to subscribe to rabbineal-list is
detecting a rhetorical question, and indeed, it’s precisely because
those few words “fear no man” seem to convey a separate thought that
the ancient rabbis enumerated a separate mitzvah based upon them.
Sefer HaHinnuch, the medieval textbook of the commandments, says that
“not fearing any man” means that even if the judge is worried that an
evil defendant will kill him or burn down his crops, he still must
rule in accordance with the law and not be intimidated.

The Sefer HaHinnuch brings another example: if a student is present
when the teacher is deciding a case, and the student sees that the
poor man is right and the rich man is wrong, the student must speak
up, even in front of his teacher, and not be intimidated by either his
master nor the litigant.

OK, so far, so good, but given that most of us aren’t banging gavels
and wearing robes, how does this mitzvah apply? To me, the mitzvah is
about having the courage of our convictions despite the potential
unpleasantness of outcomes. When we know- not guess – that a situation
is unjust or unfair, we are called upon not to hold back our voice
from fear. There might be other reasons to be judicious- such as the
desire to preserve human dignity- but it’s important to note that a
religious life is not necessarily one of meek piety in all things.
Sometimes to have faith means to be brave, to take a “leap of action”,
as Heschel put it, or to “fear no man,” – or person- as Moshe
commanded the judges.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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