Mishpatim: Becoming Judges
Rabbi Yehudah ben Lakish says: Two people who come before you in judgement, one weak and the other powerful, before you hear their claims, or even after you have heard their
claims but you do not know in whose favor the case inclines, you are permitted to say to them, “I do not wish to be involved, for perhaps the powerful one will be found guilty and he will harass the judge. However, once you have heard their claims and you know in whose favor the case inclines, you are not permitted to say, “I do not want to be involved”, for it stated (Devarim, 1:17): ” You shall not fear any man”. (Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim #6)
Why would a judge be allowed to withdraw from a case involving one powerful party, as long as he has not yet determined how he would rule? Why does “You shall not fear any man” not apply then?
It seems that there are two distinct stages at work. The first stage, before the parties have spoken, or even after they have spoken but the judge has not formed his decision yet, and the stage after the proper ruling has become clear to the judge.
The judge goes through a transformation between the first and the second stage. At first, he is faced with having to make a choice, not the choice of determining who is innocent and who is guilty, but a much more fundamental choice; the choice of acting as a judge. Before stepping into the role, when he is still undecided as to whether he is ready to involve himself in the case, the not-yet-judge is vulnerable to the intimidation of a ‘powerful’ party.
However, once he makes that initial choice, the choice of representing justice in this world, the choice of becoming a partner with the Ultimate Judge, he has absolutely no reason to fear being harassed when he renders his decision.
Although most of us are not judges in the court system, we act as judges in all different aspects of lives.
When we are still unsure of whether we want to get involved in a given situation, when we hesitate to make a choice to fight for a cause, we often feel threatened by those who seem powerful; we wonder if it is worth taking the chance of being bullied.
But something almost magical happens when we take the first step towards bringing justice; we are not alone anymore, we are not scared anymore; at that point “You shall not fear any man” does not seem like an abstract commandment- it becomes a reality.