G-d doesn’t ask very much of the Jewish people. The people don’t need a king, an army, stock market, universities or football stadiums.
But there is one thing that G-d insists upon: The Jews must have a judicial system that is honest and incorruptible. Judges cannot favor one litigant over another. They cannot sit on the bench if there is any conflict of interest. They cannot accept any form of bribe — even a flattering word before proceedings.
“Justice, justice, shall you pursue.”
Every word tells a story. Another writer might have stressed the word “pursue,” as in “Justice, shall you pursue and pursue.” Instead, the word “justice” is doubled. There are many, many things in our world, and very few of them are worth pursuing. The exception is justice.
In this week’s portion, the Torah then tells us why we must pursue justice. “…in order for you to live and inherit this land that G-d, your G-d, gives you.”
At that point, the great commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki quotes from the Talmud. “It is worthwhile to appoint legitimate judges to revive Israel and place them on their land.”
Honest judges can keep the Jews in their land; corrupt judges will ensure another exile. There is no commandment for Jews to establish a judicial system outside the Land of Israel. But in Israel the appointment of an improper judge is akin to idol worship, the worst of sins.
Many would say: What’s the big deal? Most countries in the world are corrupt, the judges and police, included. And, they’ve lasted for decades if not centuries. Why should we be different?
The answer is that G-d gave the gentiles countries and empires based on a host of considerations. But he gave the Jews the Land of Israel based on only one thing — observance of the Torah’s commandments. Without a judicial system and a police force willing to enforce rulings, there is simply no raison d’etre for a separate Jewish homeland. Indeed, the Peskita, or Midrash, writes that without an honest and obedient police, there is no need for judges.
This is the history of the Jewish people. Alexander Yannai was one of the last Hasmonean kings. For the first eight years, he posed as a righteous leader. But after his military victories, he shed any pretension of piety and began to persecute the Jews. He defied and intimidated the Sanhedrin, the highest court of the land. At one point, he was said to have crucified 800 rabbis, known as Pharisees.
As the High Priest, Alexander provoked the pilgrims in the Second Temple by degrading the service during the Tabernacles and adopting the practice of the Sadducees, who rejected Jewish tradition. When the people responded by throwing citrons at him, Alexander summoned his army of foreign mercenaries and slaughtered 6,000 Jews. Then, he made the Sadducees the dominant element in the Temple. Not long after, the Hasmoneans were overthrown in a coup sponsored by Rome.
Alexander’s intolerance of devout judges returned with the establishment of the State of Israel. David Ben-Gurion ordered Haim Cohen and Pinchas Rosen to purge the Jews who had worked in the British mandate. The Jewish judges would be examined for their fidelity to the now ruling Mapai Party. Promotions were based on political considerations. Mapai politicians would consult with judges regarding cases that could affect party interests.
The most loyal of the judges were reserved to shield Mapai governments in times of crisis. Shimon Agranat could be counted upon to protect the interests of the Mapai leadership. So, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which nearly 3,000 soldiers were killed, Prime Minister Golda Meir sought to assuage an outraged public by promising a commission of inquiry. Agranat was appointed head of the commission. He absolved the political leadership and blamed Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. David Elazar, who had begged the Cabinet for a preemptive strike against Egypt on the morning of the war.
Even long after Mapai governments, the judges refused to conduct justice blindly. The Supreme Court consistently refused to order the demolition of illegal Arab homes while demanding the immediate removal of Jewish homes and communities in Judea and Samaria. One judge took all of five minutes to confirm a demolition order of a Jewish home, leaving its occupants without shelter in the middle of the night.
Last month, Tel Aviv district court Judge Hadas Ovadia approved a municipal housing project in Jaffa that barred Jews. Ovadia dismissed a petition to stop the project because of the money and time invested. Neither justice nor equality played a role in the decision: It was about the cost to the municipality.
Little wonder that the corruption in the courts has resulted in the collapse of the political system. Today, the government is being run by an Islamist party outside the coalition that received a whopping $53 billion shekel budget and won immunity and services for the huge sector of illegal Arab construction throughout the country. To pay for that, the government has ordered a new round of tax increases as well as a 30 percent rise in electricity rates. The Jews under Alexander Yannai would have found this familiar.
David, regarded as the most righteous of kings, saw this centuries before the Hasmoneans. In Psalms 82, he warns the judges that their only loyalty must be to justice. No amount of posturing or sophistry will save them from G-d.
“How long will you defend the unjust? Judge the poor and orphaned. Maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy. Deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
And then David lays out the consequences for the corrupt judges, those who “understand nothing and walk in darkness.” He says G-d will shake the foundations of the earth and bring down the corrupt men and women in their black robes. They were meant to have been the leaders of society, “sons of the Most High…But you will die like mere men. You will fall like every other ruler. ”
In the end, David sees no solution to the liars and corrupt except for divine intervention. “Rise up, O G-d, judge the earth, for all the nations are your inheritance.”