Midrash Tanchuma reveals an astounding hidden dimension of the justice system which was to be established when the Jews entered the land of Israel. A divine synergy will exist between achieving justice in the courtroom and winning on the battlefield:
כִּי תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה וְגוֹ‘. מַה כְּתִיב לְמַעְלָה מִן הָעִנְיָן, וְדָרְשׁוּ הַשּׁוֹפְטִים הֵיטֵב. מִשֶּׁיֵּעָשׂוּ הַשּׁוֹפְטִים דִּין, צְּאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה וְאַתֶּם נוֹצְחִין
“When you go out to war’’ (Devarim, 20:1): What is written [in the Torah] right before that? ‘And the judges shall make a thorough investigation’ (Devarim, 19:18). [The juxtaposition of these words signify that] when the judges execute (true) justice, you [can] go out to war and you will be victorious.”’ God promises that If we defeat graft, bribery and corruption in the courtroom, God will defeat our enemies on the battlefield.* (Midrash Tanchuma Shoftim – 15:1)
Should an individual soldier fear going to war
We are still left with the question – If victory or defeat hinges on justice in the courtroom, what do individuals have to fear? We know that there was a ”מְשׁוּחַ מִלְחָמָה” special High Priest, assigned to the battlefield. Besides rallying the troops, he announced the exemptions from fighting in battle. Those include men who were just married or just built a home. The priest also announced that those who were afraid could leave as well.
The Talmud provides two approaches as to what an individual has to fear: Rabbi Akiva says that some people are simply terrified at the sight of a drawn sword. However, Rabbi Yosei HaGelili says it’s a fear due to the repercussions of one’s moral failings:
הירא ורך הלבב זהו המתיירא מן העבירות שבידו
“Those who are fearful and fainthearted’ [should leave the battlefield]; those who are afraid because of the sins they committed” (Talmud Sotah 44A).
The great cover-up
Some commentaries go so far as to say that the battlefield ceremony recorded in the Torah serves to camouflage those who are afraid to fight because of fear of sin. When soldiers would walk off the battlefield no one knew if the reason was fear of sin or one of the other exemptions (just married, just built a home, etc). The Torah did not want soldiers to “judge” their fellow soldiers so it allowed those with a fear of sin a graceful exit (Rashi on Devarim 20:8).
Redefining “Great leaders” and Israel’s beauty
The Midrash spells out that our leaders were judged first and foremost by their ability to be fair and honest judges. As was the case with King David:
וימלוך דוד על כל ישראל ויהי עושה משפט וצדקה לכל עמו
“And David reigned over all of Israel and he administered judgment and righteousness to all his people” (I Divrei Hayamim:18:14 & II Shmuel 8:15).
In fact, among the nations of the world, the land of Israel was considered beautiful because of the justice of its courtrooms”
ויצא לך שם בגוים ביפיך ואיזה הוא הידור, זה הדין
“And your name shall be spread among the nations because of your beauty, And what adornment is that? This is the justice system”(Yechezkel 16:14).
The Midrash spells out the dire repercussions of judicial corruption – for the land of Israel and the world: והנוטל שוחד מקלקל הדין, ומעוור את עיניו, וגורם גלות לישראל, ומביא רעב לעולם
“..One who takes a bribe corrupts justice, blinds their eyes, causes exile for Israel, and brings hunger into the world” (Midrash Tanchuma Shoftim – 8:1).
The one Jew who could judge the Jews favorably
Shoftim (The Book of Judges) goes on to describe how the enemy raided Israel’s crops and livestock causing widespread starvation. The Jews cried out in anguish. A Prophet by the name of Gidon was chosen by God to intervene. Why was Gidon singled out? According to Midrash Tanchuma, God was searching for one Jew who would defend the Jewish People despite the fact that they had fallen to a low spiritual state. (Ibid 4:1)
Why are the battlefield and the courtroom so spiritually intertwined?
Perhaps because the entire right of the Jews to live in Israel is predicated on living with the principles of “Tzedaka Umishpat” צְדָקָ֣ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט – “righteousness and justice.” As it is spelled out clearly in our Parsha: צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ “Vigorously pursue justice so that you may dwell and inherit the land the Lord your God gave you” (Devarim 16:20).
The fact that the Midrash linked the two is both exhilarating and frightening.
*After appreciating all these beautiful aspects of justice which were embodied in the Sanhedrin – the High Court in Jerusalem – perhaps we should develop a new appreciation for the blessing which appears in the “Silent Prayer “ (Shemona Esrei) הָשִֽׁיבָה שׁוֹפְ֒טֵֽינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁוֹנָה “Please return to us (the caliber of) judges we once had.”