In many ways, our lives bear a close resemblance to the model of a court. Sometimes we play lawyer, making passionate arguments to accuse or defend, and other times we play judge, passing judgments, drawing conclusions and sketching a picture of others that we believe to be true. While our actions in this regard surely don’t yield the same repercussions that an actual judge and lawyer would, they do, in fact, mark a serious imprint on ourselves.
Parshat Mishpatim, in contrast to the more narrative-style parshiyot, focuses on laying out different laws and ethical teachings for Bnei Yisrael to live. In one set, it talks about different types of injustice one must avoid: “You shall not hear a false report; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness: You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong — you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty — nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute” (Shemos 23:1-3). Some commentary on these pesukim double in their relevance to those in and out of the courtroom.
Rashi says that hearing a false report applies both to a judge and an ordinary person; the former cannot allow one party to testify without the other present, and the latter must, quite simply, not take lies as fact. Regarding the second pasuk, of siding with the majority, Sforno explains that one cannot be influenced by the majority by virtue of the fact that they are the majority; while he specifically is commenting as it would apply to a panel of presiding judges, the idea can surely apply to the general population, too. On the last pasuk, Chizkuni simply notes that this fits with the theme of false testimony, meaning one cannot skew honesty or justice from their perceived “duty” to assist a poor man.
The overarching theme of these three pesukim is, on the surface, outlining what a judge must avoid in order to prevent perverting their judgment. However, these lessons also spell out very practical lessons in our own lives.
Thought of in the broader context of life, these scenarios don’t sound so abstract: When do we accept rumors and slander, perhaps even contributing some ideas of our own? Are there times we side with the powerful at the expense of the defenseless? Do we, from the other side, automatically side with those we deem “poor,” in whatever sense, in sacrifice of truth and honesty? Of course, such things can apply when in social, academic, professional, or familial contexts, but they’re important nonetheless. Ultimately, the driving question we must ask ourselves is: What role does my integrity, my good-hearted, honest pursuit of truth and justice, play in my life, and what role do I want it to play?
In Pirkei Avot, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says, “On three things the world stands: on justice, on truth, and on peace” (1:18). On a basic level, the very order and sustainability of our global society depend on those elements, and without one, everything can crumble. On another level, perhaps this “world” can also refer to the inner world of a person: For without a life of justice, truth, and peace, can one really stand? If we have no justice, then we abandon the truth, and if we abandon the truth, then we cannot welcome peace. In the courtroom of our lives, we need to strive for justice, and through it we will find truth and peace; then, we will never fall.