Mishpatim: It's Not Who You Know

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Knowing the right people is, more often than not, the key to success in the modern world. We in North America refer to “connections”, but in Israel it's called by a less diplomatic but more honest name, protektzia.

While this is true in almost all aspects of life, it is especially true when one is faced with legal troubles. Having the financial means to hire right lawyer can make all the difference between time in jail and time at home. It is this norm the Torah rejects in the immediate aftermath—and immediately preceding— the giving of the Aseret haDibrot.
 
“And these are the laws that you should place before them” (21:1). It is this verse that serves as the obligation for Jews to have disputes adjudicated before a Jewish court. The western system of law, the adversarial approach, is based on the premise that the arguments put forth by the litigants (or more precisely their lawyers) will lead to the emergence of the truth. However, the primary job of the lawyer is to win for the client.
 
The Jewish court system is based on seeking the unvarnished truth. No lawyers were allowed to advocate for their client. Rather, the judge, the lawyer, and the jury merged into one. It was the role of (generally three) judges to cross-examine any witnesses and then reach a verdict.
 
Appointing judges for such a role was no easy task. They had to be “G-d-fearing men, men of truth who hate injustice” (literally, who “hate money”) (18:21). These words, spoken by Yitro to Moshe, serve as the preamble to Sinai, even though many commentaries claim that these instructions vis a vis the appointment of judges actually occurred after Sinai. They may have happened later, but the Torah chose to record them here. Rich and poor alike are entitled to equal justice.
 
Yet much more than our legal system is susceptible to bias towards those who know the right people. “Do not mistreat a widow or orphan. If you mistreat them and they cry out to me, I shall hear their cry. My wrath shall blaze and I shall kill you by the sword and your wives will be widows and your children orphans” (22:21-23). Maimonides notes (Guide to the Perplexed 1:37) that the anger of G-d is usually reserved for the sin of idolatry.
 
Yet here, G-d unleashes his anger at those who take advantage of the orphan and widow,
 
punishing them in the most fitting of ways—measure for measure—by turning their own wives and children into widows and orphans. No other member of society has as little protektzia as an orphan or widow—and the stranger, who is the subject of the immediately preceding verse: “Do not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (22:20).
 
It is human nature to take advantage of the weak and unprotected. It is also easy to do so with little or no consequences. Those who do so bring upon themselves the wrath of G-d. Over and over again, the Torah implores us to not only not mistreat the orphan, widow and stranger, but to show extra kindness and concern for them; i.e., to invite them into our home on the holidays (Devarim 16:11 and 14). We even have a special mitzvah to love the stranger. Having endured much, they are to be treated better than all others, with one exception—in a court of law. There, strict justice must prevail even to the detriment of the widow (at least until court is dismissed, when one can determine if other concerns warrant rolling back any gains made at the expense of the widow, orphan and stranger).
 
Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, zt”l (1853.-1918) was perhaps the greatest Talmudic genius of modern times. His brilliant, creative and original methodology of Talmudic analysis heralded a Talmudic renaissance felt around the world. When asked to define the function of a Rabbi, he did not respond that it was learning and teaching Torah, or answering questions of Jewish law. Rather, he felt that the primary function of a Jewish leader is to help the widow, the orphan and the stranger. 
 
Shabbat Shalom!