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Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Jared Viders

"Yes, you called, how can I help?"

"Well, I just received this letter from a lawyer seeking to collect on a debt. I'd like you to write them a letter back - you know, give them a real punch in the nose."

"Ah ha. You must have the wrong number. I'm an attorney, not a boxer. I actually have a professional degree and despite all the lawyer jokes out there try to behave, well, professionally - even to my colleagues and adversaries. If you're looking for someone to give a real punch in the nose, I suggest you try Mike Tyson … he has a different sort of skill-set and education. Let me see if I have his number here."

* * *

In the winter of 2000-01, a local Torah day school attended a field trip to the Supreme Court located downtown. One of the parents inquired of the Rebbe why the trip was slated for morning session (reserved for Torah study) as opposed to the afternoon session (allocated for civics and social studies). In response, the Rebbe explained that in today's day and age where virtually every vestige of government and authority is the object of scorn and derision, it was of utmost importance - and indeed part and parcel of their Torah learning - so that they have an opportunity to experience first-hand the decorum, propriety, and overall respect that should be ascribed to the administration of justice (in general) and the judges (in specific) that attempt to do so.

* * *

"You shall not curse a judge and you shall not curse a leader among your people." (Ex. 22:27)

Sefer HaChinuch: "At the root of the precept lies the reason that it is impossible for a settled community of human beings to exist and function without making one among them the head over the others, to obey his order and carry out his decrees. For in their views people are divided from one another, and all will never agree on any one view in order to do any one particular thing. The result will be an idle standstill and the death of all activities. For this reason it is necessary to accept the view of one among them, be it good or bad, that they may successfully engage in the business of the world. Sometimes great benefit will result from his counsel, and sometimes the reverse; but all this is better than quarrelling, which causes a complete idle standstill."

"Once, our political system was the envy of the world. Now, no matter what the crisis, we can count on Washington to be paralyzed by gridlock. How long can this go on?" - Max Boot (The Daily Beast) following the mass murder in Las Vegas in October of this past year.

* * *

As the above vignettes bring out, whether it be the adversarial system of litigation, the fair and equitable administration of justice or the political process at-large, it is readily apparent that even the best of "systems" can be sabotaged by unchecked egos and those un-willing to sub-ordinate their personal drives to the greater-good that the system ostensibly could provide.

This week's parsha marks the transition from the lofty, broad-brush stroke ideas voiced from the peaks of Har Sinai to the nitty-gritty details essential to societal health and peaceful co-existence. These systems pre-suppose that at the end of the day, mentschlichkeit and mutual respect towards those who harbor different - or even down-right opposing (albeit reasonable) - views will not be compromised. An unpopular ruling is simply not a license to torpedo another's reputation and stature.

There is room for disagreement. There is a system of justice designed to fairly adjudicate matters in dispute. There are political systems implemented to facilitate change and progress amongst those who define "change" and "progress" differently.

Before we knock those systems or the personnel that make them run, let us consider the collateral damage associated with such attacks. Society may be left bereft of the much-needed respect of authority and our best minds may be siphoned off to other fields of pursuit rather than submit themselves to the striking lack of decorum that has seeped into these once-hallowed halls.

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