"You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no person, for judgment is God's. And any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I will hear it." (Deuteronomy 1:17)
Moses spoke these words to the Israelites during one of his farewell addresses to the people when they stood for a second time on the threshold of the Promised Land. He reminds the people of the original instruction he had given to the judges of Israel.
This week's text opens with the words "You shall not be partial in judgment." Rashi, a medieval French scholar taught, that this statement was directed to the person who would appoint judges - that this individual should not say "so-and-so is a fine or strong person, I will make him a judge; or so-and-so is my relative, I will make him a judge in the city," - while really this so-and-so is not expert in the laws and consequently will condemn the innocent and acquit the guilty. God will account it to the person who appointed the judge as though he had shown favor in judgment.
Rashi offered two explanations of the next phrase of the verse "hear out low and high alike." The first declares: "A judge should not say: 'This is a poor man and his fellow (opponent) is rich, and in any case we are bidden to support the poor; I will find in favor of the poor man, and he will consequently obtain some support in a respectable fashion.'" Rashi's second interpretation reads: "A judge should not say -How can I offend against the honor of this rich man because of one dinar (coin)? I will for the moment decide in his favor, and when he goes outside (leaves the court) I will say to him, 'Give it to the poor man because in fact you owe it to him.' "
Resh Lakish gives us another explanation of this part of the text: "Let a lawsuit involving a mere perutah (a very small amount) be as important to you as one involving a hundred maneh (a very large amount)."
The midrash provides additional explanations of this phrase: low refers to a person who is disreputable and high refers to a decent person. Another suggestion is that low means a person who is poor in good deeds--mitzvot and a high person one who has done many good deeds--mitzvot. (Mekhilta Ex. 23,6)
Jeffrey Tigay has written that the claims of the powerful will certainly be heard but the weak must be treated in the same way. Giving a hearing to the low as well as the high could mean to allow the lowly to bring their lawsuits to the court. A litigant (someone seeking a lawsuit) had to pay a fee to the court to get a hearing, this might be difficult for a poor person to afford. (JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy)
More Table Talk
- According to the material in the INTERPRETATION section, why would the character and abilities of the one choosing a judge be as important as the judge him/herself?
- Several explanations are given in the INTERPRETATION section for the phrase "hear out low and high alike." What is the significance of each of the interpretations? What do we learn from each one? Is there another interpretation that you can suggest?
- Why do you think Rashi gave two interpretations of the text "hear out low and high alike?" Do you think he saw the situation from two different perspectives? Nehama Leibowitz has suggested that he was dissatisfied with the first interpretation and thus gave a second. Why then would the first be included in Rashi's teachings?
- What does it mean to be impartial? Why does a judge have to be impartial?
- Have you ever approached a parent with a dispute involving a sibling or friend, wanting him/her to settle the problem? What happened? Is it possible to judge a situation if you did not witness it first hand?
Why not try... sharing the following story with your family and discuss how the qualities of justice and mercy were satisfied by the judge's decision: At one time during the Depression New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (1933-1945) served as a night-court judge. One night a woman appeared before him who had stolen food to feed her children. La Guardia judged the case as follows saying to the woman: I fine you $10.00 for stealing, and I fine everyone else in this courtroom, myself included, fifty cents each for living in a city where a woman is forced to steal to feed her children." (from Jewish Wisdom by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, p.399)