Small Things that are Big
Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )
Devarim, 1:16: “I instructed your judges at that time, saying, ‘listen among your brethren and judge righteously between a man and his brother or his litigant. You shall not show favoritism in judgment, small and great like you shall hear.”
Moshe recounts how he warned the then-newly appointed judges not to show any favoritism that might corrupt the results of a case over which they are presiding. The Talmud gives a number of examples showing how even seemingly minor acts of kindness caused judges to be disqualified from adjudicating a case, out of the risk that his judgment will be clouded:
The first story involves the great Rabbi in the time of the Talmud known as Shmuel: Shmuel was having difficulty crossing a rickety footbridge. Someone reached out and helped him cross the bridge. Shmuel asked this man why he had come to the bridge, and the man answered that he had a case scheduled in Shmuel’s court of judgement. Upon hearing this, Shmuel disqualified himself from judging the case out of concern that the favor he had received from this man would cause him to subconsciously favor this man win and inadvertently skew the proceedings.
Another story involves Ameimar who was sitting in court, and a feather flew onto his head. A person came over and removed the feather. When he told Ameimar that he was there to have his case heard, Ameimar disqualified himself from hearing the case.
The next case involves Mar Ukva: Someone spat in front of him, and another person came and covered up the saliva. The second person had a case scheduled in which Mar Ukva was to be the judge, and Mar Ukva disqualified himself.
The final case is about Rav Shmuel bar Yose. His sharecropper who would normally deliver his share of the produce every Friday. One week, the sharecropper had to be in town on Thursday for a monetary case, so he decided to deliver the produce a day early. Rav Shmuel bar Yose recused himself from adjudicating the case of the sharecropper lest he be affected by the favor of having his produce a day early.
Rabbi Avraham Pam asks: Were these Amoraim so fickle that the slightest favor could influence their judgment? Is it conceivable that a judge would misjudge a case because someone helped him in some small way? Why then, were these great Tzaddikim so suspicious of their own reactions to trivial favors?1
Rabbi Pam answers that this Talmud is not so much about judicial integrity or the corrosive nature of bribes as it is about the extent of gratitude that a person should have for those who do us favors.
In the words of Rabbi Yissachar Frand:
“These Amoraim weren’t fickle; they took people’s favors more seriously than we do. To us, such favors might be so insignificant that they don’t even register on our radar screens. But people who have worked on appreciating what others do for them consider these “minor” kindnesses worthy of so much gratitude that it might skew their judgment.”
In addition to conveying to us about the extent of gratitude, this concept teaches that the Torah views minor acts as being of great significance to the extent that they can have halachic ramifications such as disqualifying a Judge from adjudicating a case. This idea is also demonstrated with regard to the extent to which a person should be careful in maintaining peace between a man and wife.
When Sarah overhears the Angels tell Avraham that Sarah will bear a child, she laughs and says to herself that this will not happen, since she is infertile and her husband is old. God then reveals to Avraham that Sarah was skeptical about this Prophecy, but when God relates what Sarah said, He omits what she said about Avraham. The Sages teach from here, "It is permitted to alter the truth for the sake of peace."
The question arises as to what exactly would have happened had God told Avraham that Sarah said that he was old - It was true that he was old, and being old is not a flaw in a person’s character. Moreover, Avraham, in his righteousness would surely not have been upset by this innocuous comment. Yet, we learn from here that even the fact that Sarah thought to herself something that was not entirely positive about Avraham was considered sufficient to represent some kind of dent in the matrimonial peace to the extent that God altered the truth to maintain the peace.
This is another example of the idea that what the average person considers something insignificant, is considered of such importance by the Torah that it permits something that is normally forbidden. Specifically, in the realm of matrimonial peace, it teaches that we should be very careful to avoid causing any slight dent in other people’s harmony and all the more so with regard one’s own harmony, to be exceedingly careful to say anything that could slightly hurt one’s spouse.
We have seen that seemingly minor acts are deemed highly significant by the Sages, be it in the realm of gratitude or in peace between husband and wife. May we all merit to excel in every detail in these vital areas of life.
- See Michtav M’Eliyahu, Chelek 1, ‘Mabat Ha’emet’, pp.52-57.