As the Jewish People were about to enter the land, the overwhelming message of Midrash Tanchuma is that an honest court system is the fundamental building block of a just society. Without it, we have no right to live in the Land of Israel. Moreover, according to the Torah, scrupulous honesty had to start at the top.
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, a leader is judged first and foremost by their ability to be a fair and honest judge:
“.. the leaders of Israel were praised only for their judging. 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 (in I Chronicles:18:14 // II Samuel 8:15), “And David reigned over all of Israel and he administered judgment and righteousness to all his people.”
Of course Moses not only held court from morning till night, he set down the rules for establishing a court system with honest judges.
Even when the Midrash extols the beauty of Jerusalem it’s really referring to its system of justice.
“And Jerusalem also praised only because of the justice system, as stated (in Ezekial 16:14), “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.”
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:
“..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 (in Deuteronomy. 16:20): ‘Justice, Justice you shall pursue so that you may live and possess the land’ and if not, you shall not possess it.”
Advocating for those who don’t seem to deserve it
Midrash Tanchuma brings a story from the Book of Judges which shows that G-d wants us to judge our fellow Jews favorably even when they brought their difficulties upon themselves. In the 6th chapter of the Book of Judges, we are told in verse 1:
“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.”
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 Gideon. Why was Gideon singled out? According to Midrash Tanchuma G-d was searching for one Jew who would defend the Jewish People despite the fact that they had fallen to a low spiritual state..”
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 Gideon, that he advocated merit about them (the Jewish People), the angel immediately revealed himself to (Gideon)
As Jews we are quick to judge our own People harshly. According to Midrash Tanchuma, G-d is searching for those who, even under the most trying circumstances, don’t give up on their fellow Jews.
When Man judges himself worthy to be a god
At the end of the parsha the Jews are warned not to be swayed by sorcerers and witchcraft which they will encounter when they enter the Land of Israel. Midrash Tanchuma quotes 3 opinions as to how to respond to purveyors of black magic. Rebbe Eliezer says – tell them we will worship your gods if your gods are powerful enough “to remove the heavens and the earth.” He dared them to destroy the Earth. Perhaps the message is, only a true god would be unaffected by the destruction of earth. If you can’t survive independent of the planet, it is as if you are putting on a puppet show in a theatre created by a more powerful God. So why should we worship your god.
Rebbe Yehoshua took the opposite tact. He said “tell them that we will worship your gods if your gods are powerful enough “to create the heavens and the earth.” You can turn a stick into a snake but only the true G-d can create the entire world out of nothing. Finally Rebbe Akiva raised the bar even higher. He said that “your gods are the real gods if they can remove the heavens and earth, and make a new one in a different color” (Do you have anything in pink?) According to the laws of nature (and wikipedia) the sky is blue because atmospheric particles scatter violet light but our eyes are more sensitive to blue light. Grass is green because it produces a bright pigment called chlorophyll which reflects green light. G-d created the laws of nature. A real god should be able to delete the old rules and create new ones.
According to Midrash Tanchuma, the Roman emperor Hadrian asks his advisors if he could become a god. They gave him the 3 answers above but he went home to his wife and complained that he got unsatisfactory answers. Being a better judge of character, she gave him an answer that made him realize how foolish his question was.
“He went to his home and was distressed. His wife came to him and asked, “Why are you distressed?” He said to her, ‘Because I sought to make myself into a god and they did not let me.’ She said to them, “They did not answer you correctly. I will answer you differently. There is a security deposit that you have from God. Give Him back his security deposit and (then you can) make yourself into a god.” He said to her, “And what is His deposit?” She said to him, “The soul.” He said to her, “If my soul departs, what shall I do?” She said to him, “You are not able to control the soul that is in you…So how can you make yourself into a god?”
Everyone in Israel knows that if you want to disconnect from your internet provider, some companies make it especially difficult. But ultimately, once you return the routers you are done. Hadrian’s wife said “sure you can be a god. Just give back the factory issued equipment you came with at birth. In other words, your soul.
Hadrian determined that his wife was right. This doesn’t make him as noble as those kings who judged in righteousness and refused bribes. But it had profound theological significance as to recognizing who was the true judge of the world and who was just a pretender to The Throne.