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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Softim 5773 "Chief Justice"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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There is a legend told about two brothers who owned fields on opposite sides of a hill. The first brother had a large family, while the second brother lived by himself. One night towards the beginning of the harvesting season, the first brother thought to himself that his brother probably could use some extra grain. “I have a wife, sons, and daughters, to assist me in the fields but he must work alone.” So late that night the first brother clandestinely went out to his field and dragged some of his biggest bags of grain across the hill into his brother’s field. Meanwhile, at the same time, the second brother was also thinking. “I live by myself and so I don’t require much food for the long winter. But my brother has many mouths to feed.” So the brother went out to his field and quietly dragged his biggest bags of grain into his brother’s field. The scenario kept repeating itself for many nights until one night they met. They instantly realized what was happening and they embraced. The legend concludes that it was on that hill that the Bais Hamikdash was constructed1

There is an apocryphal legend that serves as a sequel to the first legend: There were once two brothers who owned fields on opposite sides of a hill. The first brother had a large family, while the second brother lived by himself. One night towards the beginning of the harvesting season, the first brother thought to himself that his brother surely doesn’t need all of his grain. “I have a wife, sons, and daughters, and I must feed them all while he only needs to feed his selfish self.” So late that night, the first brother clandestinely went out to his brother’s field and dragged some of the biggest bags of grain across the hill and into his own field. Meanwhile, at about the same time, the brother was also thinking. “I live by myself and so I don’t have anyone to help me while my brother has so many people to assist him.” So the brother also went out to his brother’s field and quietly dragged the biggest bags of grain into his own field. The scenario kept repeating itself for many nights until one night they saw each other. They instantly realized what was transpiring and they began screaming and shouting at each other. The neighbors heard and began to take sides until tremendous enmity developed, and it was on that hill that the Israeli Knesset was built!

The Torah places a great deal of emphasis on leadership and a strong judicial system. “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities- which Hashem, your G-d, gives you – for your tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment… Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you.2

What is the reason for the verse’s seeming redundancy; what is the point of repeating the word ‘righteousness’ (‘tzedek)? Also, the Torah seems to emphasize that righteousness and a proper judicial system are a prerequisite to living in Eretz Yisroel. Why?

Previously3, Moshe instructed the nation, “Safeguard and hearken to all these words that I command you, in order that it be well with you and your children after you forever, when you will do what is just (hayashar) and good (v’hatov) in the eyes of Hashem, your G-d.”

K’sav Sofer notes that G-d does not merely demand justice but also a level of goodness that transcends actual justice. If one is too particular to adhere to the letter of the law, it is inevitable that at times he will be remiss in following the law. Therefore, one must conduct himself beyond the letter of the law. One must take into account not only the court ruling but also the ramifications of the verdict on the other litigants.

One can be legally justified, yet remiss by Torah standards which demand that he behave with a level of goodness. This is what the verse is demanding, “when you will do - not only - what is just – but you will also seek to do what is – good in the eyes of Hashem your G-d.” Goodness often takes a person far beyond what can legally be demanded of him.

The Medrash4 relates that there were once two men who came to court to present their argument before judges. The first man explained that he had purchased an old decrepit house from the second man and had subsequently found some valuable treasures in the house. The man insisted that he had only purchased the home, not the valuables and therefore they belonged to the original owner. The second man countered that he too feared taking something that didn’t belong to him. He felt that he had sold the home with everything in it, so the valuables belonged to the purchaser.

Based on the explanation of the K’sav Sofer, his great-grandson the Da’as Sofer explains that it is this level of righteousness which the verse refers to. A Jew is obligated to not only pursue justice, but also a level of righteousness beyond justice, i.e. to go beyond the letter of the law, lifnim mishuras hadin. This exhortation is not addressing the elite but is vital to all inhabitants of Eretz Yisroel, “so that you will live and possess the land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you.”

The Gemara5 states that Jerusalem was destroyed because of their extreme meticulousness to justice and maintaining the letter of the law. The commentators explain that they were overly meticulous to the letter of the law, and disregarded the feelings, situation, or needs of the litigants. No one was willing to take a loss to benefit someone else if legally he did not have to.

My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, would note that sometimes a person can wait forever to make a turn at an intersection, because no other driver will yield to him. The truth is that according to the law a driver is not obligated to allow a second driver to go ahead of him. However, society – especially a Torah society – cannot endure where people don’t care about each other.

The Beirach Moshe of Satmar zt’l utilized a similar approach to explain the Torah’s juxtaposition of the laws of enacting a judicial system with the Jewish holidays listed at the conclusion of the preceding Pasha, Parshas Re’eh.

The Torah states, “You shall rejoice on your festival – you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite, the proselyte, the widow, and the orphan who are in your cities.6” Rashi explains that the Torah lists eight categories of people that a Jew should include in his own joy. Those eight can be divided into two subgroups. In essence, G-d is saying, “Your four - the four of your household, correspond to my four - the Levite, proselyte, orphan, and widow. If you will gladden my four I will gladden your four.” The purpose of Yom Tov is not for selfish joy but to ensure and enhance national joy. It is incumbent upon every Jew to contemplate how he can spread joy to others, especially to gladden those who are downtrodden and troubled.

After discussing the holidays which obligates every Jew to think about the welfare of others, the Torah continues by instructing every community to have a judicial system. But that system is not only to maintain peace and order. Rather, its mission is to ensure that every Jew is cared for.

Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum zt’l, the former Satmar Rebbe, was a person of incredible Torah erudition and insight. He was also an incredible lover of his people, regardless of their background or views. There are countless stories which demonstrate this point.

The Rebbe was the founder of many charity organizations and endless lines of people would approach him begging for financial assistance daily. On one occasion, a man came to the Rebbe and cried bitter tears as he related his bitter plight about financial, familial, and health issues. When the man completed his tale of woe, the Rebbe gave him a sizeable donation and a heartfelt blessing.

About five minutes after the man left, the Rebbe’s Gabbai burst into the Rebbe’s office and announced to the Rebbe that the man was a fraud. The Rebbe looked up tremendously relieved, breathing a sigh of relief. “You mean that whole story wasn’t true? Boruch Hashem!”

Rashi (16:20) quoting Sifrei comments, “It is befitting for you to appoint valid judges to enliven Klal Yisroel and to return them to their land.” Beirach Moshe concludes that our Sages note that jealousy, enmity, and discord destroy the fabric of our nation. The Gemara7 states that the sins of jealousy and hatred were the catalysts for our exile and the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. Therefore, when we have judges and leaders who guide us to live based on a Torah-based weltanschauung of justice and righteousness, it promotes love and unity.

It is not sufficient for a Jew to be righteous. He must also seek goodness and a level of righteousness beyond the letter of the law. In the concluding words of Megillas Esther8, “He sought the good of his people and espoused peace for their progeny.”

“Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue”

“To do what is just and good in the eyes of Hashem”

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1 Note that this story does not seem to have any source in Chazal.
2 Devorim 16:18-20
3 Devorim 12:28
4 Vayikra Rabbah 27:1
5 Bava Metziah 30b
6 Devorim 16:14
7 Yoma 9b
8 in reference to Mordechai - Esther 10:3

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