When it comes to Torah law, justice must be done, regardless of whether the amount in dispute is “big” or “small.”
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22) and in it we have what is essentially Moses’ last sermon before he passes away. Moses prepares the people for their imminent entry into the land of Israel by reminding them to keep the laws of the Torah. Moses also gives a general review of the 40 years of wandering the desert, the appointment of tribal leaders, and the Jewish people’s more famous battles.
Judging fairly is one of the issues that Moses mentions, as the verse says, “Do not recognize faces in judgement … Hear the small as the big … Do not be fearful of a man because God is the ultimate judge … The matters that are difficult for you bring to me and I will hear them.” (Deuteronomy 1:17)
This passage directly echoes and references the advice that Moses’ father in law, Jethro, gave him many years earlier.
But the wording is mysteriously different in Moses’ version to the people than in Jethro’s version to Moses.
Specifically, when Jethro was speaking to Moses he said: “And you shall choose from among the entire people, men of accomplishment, God fearing men, men of truth, men who despise money, and you shall make them leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens. They [local courts] will judge the nation at all times and all the big matters they will bring to you and all the small matters they will judge … and they will lighten the burden from upon you and help you.” (Exodus 18:21-22)
When Moses conveys his father-in-law’s advice in Deuteronomy, he uses different wording than Jethro’s original instructions in Exodus. Jethro defined court cases and lawsuits as either “big” or “small” in terms of whether lower level judges should take the cases or whether they should be referred to Moses, who was, of course, the most senior judge.
Moses, however, uses different terms, defining the cases as either “hard” or “easy.”
Why the change of wording?
It is explained that Jethro’s intention was to ease the burden on Moses’ shoulders by suggesting that only the “big” cases come before him – you know, the multi-million-dollar lawsuits, class action cases, and so on.
The “small” cases, such as petty theft, financial quibbles and the like, would go to lower level judges.
But Moses didn’t like this type of classification, changing the wording to distinguish between “hard” and “easy” cases. This is because, when it comes to Torah law, when it comes to truth, and when it comes to what matters, “big” or “small” is irrelevant.
It makes no difference from the perspective of Torah law whether the case is a claim for a million dollars or one dollar. In every case, without exception, it is the truth that matters, not the amount.
Cases concerning very small amounts of money can involve legal matters that are very unclear with regard to whom the money rightfully belongs.
On the other hand, there are multi-million-dollar cases in which it is actually crystal clear to whom the money belongs.
In the former, the judges are required to spare no effort to determine the truth even if the efforts might outweigh the value of the case. With this example, one can clearly see that the size of the case is of no matter. The former case would go to Moses since it was a difficult case, while the latter case could go to the junior judges since it is a very easy case to decide.
No one should judge any matter or make any decision based on financial gain. Decisions must be made on “emet” – truth. Following the path of truth is always worth a million bucks regardless of any other considerations.
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.
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