Parshat Mishpatim 5

“Do not curse judges. Do not curse a leader of your people.” (Shemot 22:27)

On the simplest level, the above passage prohibits us from cursing judges. What is the reason for this prohibition? A study of Maimonides’ treatment of this mitzvah provides a simple, straightforward response. Maimonides discusses this prohibition in his codification of the laws governing the courts.[1] He does not explicitly state a reason for this restriction. However, his general treatment of the law indicates his position. In the prior chapter of his codification Maimonides states that we are obligated to respect judges and others appointed to positions of authority within the community.[2] He then outlines some of the specific behavior engendered by this obligation. Maimonides juxtaposes this discussion with the restriction against cursing a judge. It seems from Mainonides’ presentation of these laws that he regards cursing a judge as an extreme form of disrespect. In other words, the restriction against cursing a judge is engendered by the obligation to respect judges. This is a reasonable position and the most obvious explanation of the restriction.

Sforno takes a completely different and quite novel approach to explaining the prohibition against cursing judges. He begins by asserting the commandment includes the special case in which the court has found against a litigant. The prohibition admonishes the disappointed litigant to not express anger through cursing the judge. Sforno continues and explains that it is natural for a person to believe in the justice of one’s own cause. Therefore, the disappointed litigant may feel deeply wronged. The litigant will feel that the judges decided the case unfairly. They deserve to be cursed! These judges have miscarried justice! The Torah admonishes the irate litigant to exercise restraint. One must recognize the influence of one’s own personal bias. True, in the litigant’s view a miscarriage of justice has occurred. However, one must recognize that the court is in a position to be more objective concerning the validity of one’s own claim.[3]

Sforno’s interpretation of the passage requires careful consideration. Why does Sforno insist on focusing on a specific case – the disappointed litigant? We are obligated to respect judges. Of course, this duty applies even when we do not agree with the judges’ conclusion!

It seems that according to Sforno, this commandment is not merely an admonishment against acting disrespectfully towards the court. This mitzvah should not be viewed as one of the many commandments regulating the conduct and authority of the courts. Instead, the mitzvah regulates our personal character – midot. It admonishes us against compromising our objectivity. We are not permitted to assume that we are completely objective about ourselves. We must recognize that the court’s position is every bit as legitimate as our own. In abstract, it is easy to agree to this assertion. The challenge is to recognize this truth even at the moment of anger and frustration. Even at that moment, we must recognize our own personal bias and not overreact. In short, the passage commands us to accept the validity of an objective analysis of our own position – even when the conclusions of this analysis differ sharply from our own.

“Do not take a bribe. For the bribe blinds those with sight and perverts the words of the righteous.” (Shemot 23:8)

The Torah prohibits the judge from accepting a gift from a litigant. Even the legitimate compensation received by the judge is influenced by this consideration. In general, both litigants must contribute equally to the compensation.

Rashi explains that the Torah, through other commandments, prohibits the judge from favoring a litigant or perverting justice. This prohibition against accepting bribes is not a repetition of these injunctions. This commandment adds a new element to the laws governing jurisprudence. The judge may not even accept an unconditional payment from a litigant. In other words, consider a litigant offering to compensate a judge for his efforts. The litigant asks for no special treatment. He instructs the judge to decide the case fairly and without favoritism. The judge must not accept this payment.[4]

It is clear that the Torah assumes that, in this case, the impartiality of the judge has been impugned. He can no longer trust his own objectivity. He may unconsciously favor the litigant making the payment. Alternatively, he may feel a need to overcompensate for possible favoritism and unfairly favor the other litigant. It is not feasible for the judge to insulate himself from these motives.

Rav Elchanan Wasserman ztl explained that this lesson is not limited to judges. In everyday life we make judgments and must be aware of “bribes” which may influence us. One of the areas in which we are easily bribed is in our relationship with the Almighty. Rav Wasserman explained that the evidence of the Creator’s existence is not hidden. We live in a universe that contains many testimonies to the existence of an omnipotent designer. Why do so many reject this sublime evidence of the Creator?

Rav Wasserman responds that we are all bribed. The human is an instinctual creature. We resist restrictions. The acceptance of a Creator and a design implies that life has meaning and that humanity has a mission. We are not free to pursue instinctual pleasure without restraint. We must inquire into the meaning of creation and the mission of humanity.

These considerations bias our judgment and act as a bribe. Therefore, we cannot be influenced by the attitude of many intelligent individuals towards the evidence of a Creator. The negative reaction of many of these individuals can be understood as the expression of an innate prejudice.[5]

In many areas in life it is impossible to be completely objective. How do we ever know that our decisions are not the outcome of some innate bias? There is no absolute guarantee of objectivity. However, there is a means by which we can somewhat limit the influence of our prejudices. A prejudice is most harmful when it is not recognized. A prejudice of which we are unaware influences us without our knowledge. Once we identify our biases we can protect ourselves, to some extent, from their influence. In reviewing the decision process, we now know where to look for the effect of the prejudice and can hope to identify its influence.

“And the appearance of the glory of Hashem was as a burning fire at the summit of the mountain to the eyes of Bnai Yisrael.” (Shemot 24:17)

Most of the parasha is devoted to describing a number of the laws given at Sinai. The end of the parasha continues the discussion of the events of Revelation. The Torah explains that Mount Sinai was covered in a thick cloud. The influence of the Divine Presence was expressed through an intense flame at the summit of the mountain.

Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam explains that this imagery can be understood in both a literal and figurative sense. From a literal perspective, these pesukim describe the visual impressions of the people. What is the figurative meaning?

Sinai was a revelation. The commandments of the Torah were revealed to humanity. There was a second aspect to Revelation. The Almighty, in some sense, revealed Himself to humankind. The figure in these passages tells us something of the nature of this second aspect of Revelation. We must carefully consider the image, in the Chumash, in order to understand this second aspect of Revelation.

The Almighty cannot be perceived by the material senses. Only through our spiritual soul can we approach an understanding of Hashem. This understanding is not easily attained. Our material nature prevents us from clearly comprehending Hashem’s exalted essence. As Hashem later explained to Moshe, no living creature can achieve absolute knowledge of Hashem. However, we can achieve some lower level of understanding. The degree to which we can attain this knowledge depends upon our own spiritual perfection. There is a direct relationship between the spiritual perfection of the individual and the ability to approach an understanding of the Almighty.

The image in the pesukim describes our material nature as a dense cloud that blocks our vision of the Creator. Contemplation of Hashem requires that we look through this cloud and gaze upon the intense flame in its midst.

A very bright light can damage the eyes. Consider a person looking directly at the sun. Such a person might damage his or her sight. Once such damage occurs the eyes may never again see properly. Instead, even the familiar will be distorted.

In a similar sense, there are dangers in considering the Almighty’s nature. The student who wishes to enter into this area must be carefully and fully prepared. Without this preparation, the student will fail to comprehend. Rather than finding truth, the unprepared student will become confused. Truth will be replaced by distortion and falsehood. The Talmud explains that even great scholars were harmed as a result of their consideration of this area.

Nonetheless, the sun can be observed. Careful preparation is needed. The observer will not be able to see the sun clearly and in detail. The light is too bright. Yet, some image is obtained by the observer. So too, with proper spiritual preparation the Almighty’s nature can be considered. Moshe was properly prepared. He was able to enter into the cloud and penetrate it. He gazed upon the flame. Even for Moshe the light was too bright for a perfect view. However, Moshe did achieve the highest level of understanding possible for a material being.[6]

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 26:1.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Sanhedrin 25.

[3] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot 22:27.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 23:8.

[5] Rav Elchanan Wasserman, Kobetz Ma’amarim, Essay on Conviction.

[6] Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Shemot 24.