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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Shoftim

Do We Measure Up?

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One word essentially sums up our Parsha: Justice. Whether speaking about social, economic or legal justice, the Sedra is telling us that the rule of law & the establishment of human courts to secure Truth & Justice are central to our national survival & ethical excellence. The most famous phrase here is, Justice, justice shall you pursue. Why the double-phraseology? Many opinions have been offered:

1) When seeking justice or truth, one must strive to find the highest, most competent & knowledgeable sources; 2) Justice must be obtained only through just means; 3) Justice is sometimes administered on a human level, but at other times it is dispensed at the hands of Heaven.

There is yet another fascinating slant on Tsedek, Tsedek. The Gemara in Sanhedrin explains that one approach to justice is to be strict, with no quarter or compromise given; while another type of justice is to be flexible, with healthy amounts of compromise & compassion. Both have their place in a just society.

There are times when society & its judges must be strict & rigidly unbending. At those times, even Torah law may be superseded or magnified, if the authorities see fit. For example, the Sanhedrin could (& did, though rarely) impose the death penalty on people who rode horses on Shabbat, which at most is a Rabbinic prohibition & certainly not a capital offense. And we know that Chazal, to protect the sanctity of Shabbat, forbade sounding the Shofar on Shabbat Rosh Hashana (like this year!), despite it being mandated by the Torah & actually done in the days of the Bet HaMikdash.

And yet, we also see amazing lenience regarding the laws of Shabbat, when necessary. For instance, the Gemara suspends certain restrictions (e.g. muktze) when Kavod HaBriyut - human dignity - is involved. And so, the posek Rav Dovid Cohen told me there is a heter for opening a light in a totally-dark bathroom with a shinui on Shabbat, if it is necessary to use the facilities. And one is permitted to light a lamp on Shabbat, says the Shulchan Aruch, in a room with a pregnant woman, even if that woman is blind, if it enhances her peace of mind that others can see in case she goes into labor.

I humbly suggest that, all too often, we tend to take the strict approach to judgment, both in how we judge others as well as how we treat them. But perhaps, in these crucial days leading up to Yom Kippur, we can try to err on the lenient side and give people the benefit of the doubt, shrug off an insult, demand less than our fair share. After all, the way we judge others may be exactly the way Hashem judges us!

The Gemara says that going beyond the measure of the law is the key to Redemption. Do we measure up?
Rabbi Stewart Weiss
Was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, and led congregations in Chicago and Dallas prior to making Aliyah in 1992. He directs the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana, helping to facilitate the spiritual absorption of new olim.
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