By Rabbi Aron Tendler
In All Fairness
Imagine the following setting and scene. You are invited, along with other
guests, for a Shabbos meal at the home of an acquaintance. You accept the
invitation because you are interested in getting to know your host and his
family. The home is a beautifully appointed and designed dwelling that puts
you at ease as soon as you enter through the front door. The Shabbos table
is invitingly laid out and your hosts are gracious and welcoming. As the
meal proceeds, the conversation is engaging and the children in the family
are bright and personable.
Halfway through the meal, as one of the children was helping in the kitchen,
a loud crash interrupts the conversation. Your host quickly gets up, goes
into the kitchen, and over the protests of his child that it wasn't his
fault, proceeds to give the child a loud tongue lashing that reduces the
child to tears. The child flees to another room.
In the hushed and uncomfortable silence following the incident your host's
wife says, "If you had only waited a moment I could have explained to you
that it was my fault and not his. It was I who broke the serving platter,
not our son." Your host returns to the table and without any acknowledgment
to the gathered family and guests continues the meal and conversation as if
nothing had happened.
A short time later, the child, red eyed and shamed, returns to the table.
Your host looks at the child and in front of everyone says, "If you ever walk
away from me again before I dismiss you I will really punish you. Don't you
ever embarrass me that way again in front of my guests."
If we had to sum up the scene in three short words it would be, "It's not
fair!" If anyone deserved an apology, it was the child from the father not
the other way around. If the host had cause to be embarrassed, it was
because of his boorish and self-centered behavior, not his child's
understandable tears and shame. However, my intent is not to analyze the
moral or judicious merits of the contrived vignette. I wish to focus on what
the "lack of fairness" did to an otherwise perfect Shabbos and family
Although the home was beautiful and the hosts gracious, the lack of fairness
exposed the scene to be a sham. Although the setting and food were inviting
and the other guests engaging and interesting, the experience would be
recalled with distaste and concern rather than warmth and expectation. The
obvious lack of judicious fairness on the part of the host marred whatever
would have otherwise been good and pleasant.
On the other hand, imagine if in the aftermath of the host's impetuous
outburst, the host would have followed his child into the other room and
apologized for berating and embarrassing him. Imagine if after the child had
returned to the table the father would have taken a moment to again apologize
to his son in front of the family and guests. What would our reaction have
been? The chances are that we would have left such a home with an even
greater sense of respect for the host and his family. The scene and the
Shabbos invitation would have been remembered with warmth and dignity.
This week's Parsha begins with the fundamental issue of judicious fairness
and integrity. "Appoint Judges in all your cities who will judge the people
with righteous justice;" in other words, "fairly".
Fair judgment is the meaning of righteous justice. Judges must judge on the
merits of the case, not their personal feelings or agenda. All extraneous
factors must be left out of the judicious deliberation. Extraneous factors
include the personal reputation of the litigants, their social standing,
circumstantial evidence, and public opinion. The only issues of relevance
are the provable facts of the case.
In the Mishnah, Avos 1:9, Yehudah Ben Tabai said, "When the litigants stand
before you view them as evil; however, once they have accepted your judgment
you must view them as righteous."
The Torah's judicial system assumes guilty until proven innocent. In judging
the presumed guilty, the judge's mandate is to, if possible, find the accused
innocent and to always give the benefit of the doubt. That is why if the
entire Sanhedrin (supreme court) of 71 rule in favor of the death penalty in
a capitol case the murderer is let free. The fact that not even one of the
judges could find an argument in his defense makes it obvious that the judges
had not expended every effort in trying to find him innocent. Therefore, his
case could not have been judged righteously.
As the Bnai Yisroel were about to enter Eretz Yisroel and fulfill their
destiny as "a light onto the nations," Moshe addressed them about the impact
that "fairness" would have in influencing the rest of the world.
The Jews were to show the rest of the world the beauty and security of family
life. The Jews were to display to the other nations the importance of
intellect and study. The Jews were to model for humanity that an awareness
of G-d and its attendant responsibilities does not demand asceticism.
G-dliness is easily integrated into a life style that embraces life's
sensuality with passion and discipline.
However, although following a Torah life style should accomplish all our
goals as the Chosen People, if we are judiciously unfair the world will
despise us for whom we are in contrast to what we should have been. They
will ignore all our other potential goods and only see the unfairness of our
justice and therefore the evil of our life style.
In many ways, judicious perversion is the greatest desecration of G-d's name.
Having been created in His image, we were endowed with free will. Our free
will allows us to emulate G-d in two basic ways. A) Doing Chesed - acts of
kindness. B) Doing Mishpat - righteous justice. Chesed and Mishpat are two
realms of the divine that G-d shares with us. He expects us to do loving
acts of kindness that emulate G-d's acts of kindness. "Just as He is
merciful so too must you be merciful." Likewise, G-d expects us to share the
job of rendering justice.
Justice is one of the seven Mitzvos commanded to all of humanity and the
single most important factor in guaranteeing societies viability. The
quality of free will that sets us apart from the rest of creation is
potentially very dangerous. We are truly the only creatures alive who have
the ability to destroy the world. All other creatures have built-in
limitations that guarantee their destined existence as a species and in
coexistence with other species. Not so the human. Therefore, we must
develop and practice righteous justice. We must become self-governing,
setting rules, limits, and consequences that ensure our peaceful coexistence
with each other and all other creatures.
Mishpat and Chesed are similar. They can only be perfect if administered by
G-d. Otherwise, left up to the devices of man, justice and kindness can only
reflect the inherent limits of our flawed intellects and compassion.
Therefore, in administering Chesed and Mishpat we can only act as G-d's
appointees. Therefore, both Chesed and Mishpat remain beneath G-d's direct
supervision to guarantee that the outcome is as it should be. Therefore, any
intentional injustice is the greatest desecration of G-d's name. Therefore,
intent in both Chesed and justice is of paramount importance. So long as our
intentions and the effort we expend in their attainment are positive, noble,
and in accordance with the dictates of Halacha (Jewish Law), G-d assures
In Parshas Vayera G-d told Avraham that He was going to destroy the five
cities associated with Sedom. Prior to doing so, the Torah narrates G-d's
reasons for doing so. "Because I know that he will command his children
after him to follow the ways of G-d and do righteousness and justice."
The link between justice and righteousness that we find in this week's Parha
as well as by Avraham and Sodom underscores that both demand the same
attitude. Both require that we accept our limited administrative involvement
and G-d's ultimate supervision. Chesed is the unique trait with which
Avraham stamped the genetic soul of his children. Chesed was the medium
through which Avraham and Sarah gifted humanity with the understanding of
monotheism. What greater kindness can there be than to teach others to
recognize and accept G-d? Therefore, Chesed must be the medium through which
their children, the Bnai Yisroel, will fulfill the promise of, "the other
nations will see the name of G-d upon you and be in awe"
The prophet Yishayuhu (1:27) promised, "Tzion will be redeemed through
justice" In this week's Parhsa it says, (16:20) "Righteousness shall you
pursue, so that you will live and posses the Land"
Why is the redemption of Israel and the possession of Eretz Yisroel linked to
the pursuit of justice?
Justice, like Chesed, is G-d's realm. As a nation, the rest of the world
will judge us by the scale of our own judicious righteousness more so than
any other criteria. For the Bnai Yisroel to accomplish their mission as "the
light onto the nations," they will have to be known as the most just of all
As the children of Avraham and Sarah we are mandated to teach the world about
G-d. This constitutes the greatest Chesed possible. However, for the other
nations to want to learn from us they must see us as judiciously righteous.
Therefore, Mishpat - justice is the critical element in our national calling
of doing the Chesed of teaching the world about G-d.
The setting necessary to manifest justice and do the kindness of teaching the
world about G-d and His ways is Eretz Yisroel - the land of Israel.
Therefore, the ultimate redemption of Tzion will happen through righteous
Copyright © 2000 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.