Midrash Tanchuma reveals several hidden dimensions of justice embedded in Parshat שֹׁפְטִ֣ים – Judges. The first is that a divine unity exists between fighting for 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” (Deuteronomy 20:1): What is written [in the Torah] right before that? “And the judges shall make a thorough investigation” (Deuteronomy 19:18). [The juxtaposition of these words signify that] when the judges execute judgement, 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.
Should an individual soldier fear going to war
We are still left with the question – If victory or defeat hinges on 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 2 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 Yossi HaGlili 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 refers to]; those who are afraid because of the sins they committed” (Talmud Sotah 44A)
It seems that the battlefield is the ultimate courtroom. As a community, it’s where God scrutinizes the morality of our judges. As individuals, it’s where we are scrutinized for our moral judgement.
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. The Torah did not want soldiers to “judge” their fellow soldiers so it allowed those with a fear of sin a graceful exit.
Redefining “Great leaders”
Midrash Tanchuma’s definition of a great leader stands in stark contrast to world history where “great” leaders are defined by how much power and wealth they amass. A more contemporary criteria for judging heads of state might involve wartime courage and resolve or stimulating economic growth. Yet this too is not what the Midrash considers to be most critical. Rather, the Midrash spells out that our leaders were judged first and foremost by their ability to be fair and honest judges:
וכן את מוצא בפרנסי ישראל, שלא נשתבחו אלא על ידי הדין. בשמואל כתיב, והלך מדי שנה בשנה וסבב בית אל וגו’ (ש”א ז טז). ואף דוד לא נשתבח אלא על ידי הדין, כמה דכתיב, וימלוך דוד על כל ישראל ויהי עושה משפט וצדקה לכל עמו
“.. the leaders of Israel were praised only for their judgement. It is written concerning Samuel (I Samuel 7:6), “And he went on a circuit year by year …and he judged Israel in all those places.” And David also was praised only for his judging, as stated, “And David reigned over all of Israel and he administered judgment and righteousness to all his people.” (I Chronicles:18:14 // II Samuel 8:15)
The most beautiful spot in all of Israel is a just courtroom
According to the Midrash, even when the Torah extols the beauty of Jerusalem it’s really referring to its system of justice.
ואף ירושלים לא נשתבחה אלא על ידי הדין, שנאמר ויצא לך שם בגוים ביפיך)
(יחזקאל טז יד), ואיזה הוא הידור, זה הדין
“And Jerusalem was only praised because of the justice system, as stated, “And your name shall be spread among the gentiles because of your beauty, (as you were crowned with adornment ” And what adornment is that? This is the justice system.”(Yechezkel 16:14)
The Midrash does not shy away from condemning Jerusalem when its system of justice became corrupt. In fact, the reverberations of our injustice were felt around the world:
והנוטל שוחד מקלקל הדין, ומעוור את עיניו, וגורם גלות לישראל, ומביא רעב לעולם, שנאמר צדק צדק תרדוף למען תחיה וירשת (דברים טז כ), ואם לאו לא תירש
“..one who takes a bribe corrupts justice, makes her eyes blind, causes exile for Israel, and brings hunger into the world. Thus it is stated: ‘Justice, Justice you shall pursue so that you may live and possess the land’ and if not, you shall not possess it.” (Deuteronomy. 16:20)
The one Jew who could judge the Jews favorably
Midrash Tanchuma brings a story from the Book of Judges which shows that God wants us to judge our fellow Jews favorably even when they brought their difficulties upon themselves.
וַיַּעֲשׂ֧וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָרַ֖ע בְּעֵינֵ֣י ה’ וַיִּתְּנֵ֧ם יְהוָ֛ה בְּיַד־מִדְיָ֖ן שֶׁ֥בַע שָׁנִֽים
“Then the Israelites did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord and the Lord delivered them into the hands of the Midianites for seven years.” (Judges 6:1)
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 was sent to speak to Gidone. Why was Gidone 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.”
אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בְּרַבִּי שָׁלוֹם, שֶׁיִּהְיוּ מַטִּין וּמְלַמְּדִין עֲלֵיהֶם זְכוּת לִפְנֵי הַקבָּ”ה. מִמִּי אַתָּה לָמֵד. מִגִּדְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹאָשׁ, שֶׁבְּיָמָיו הָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּצָרָה, וְהָיָה הַקבָּ”ה מְבַקֵּשׁ אָדָם שֶׁיְּלַמֵּד עֲלֵיהֶם זְכוּת וְלֹא הָיָה מוֹצֵא, שֶׁהָיָה הַדּוֹר דַּל בְּמִצְוֹת וּבְמַעֲשִׂים. כֵּיוָן שֶׁנִּמְצָא זְכוּת בְּגִדְעוֹן, שֶׁלִּמֵּד עֲלֵיהֶם זְכוּת, מִיָּד נִגְלָה עָלָיו הַמַּלְאָךְ
“Rabbi Yehudah ben Rabbi Shalom said,… As Israel was in distress in his days, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, sought a person to advocate merit for them. But He did not find (anyone), as the generation was lacking in keeping the Torah and performing good deeds. Once He found this quality in Gidone, that he advocated merit about them (the Jewish People), the angel immediately revealed himself to (Gidone)”
As Jews we are quick to harshly judge our own People. We see from this story the importance of favorably judging our fellow Jews. Even when God was ready to redeem us from difficult circumstances, God sought out a messenger with a special quality. The ability to never give up on their fellow Jews.
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.”