"The Covenant Confirmed," by John Steeple Davis
"The Covenant Confirmed," by John Steeple Davis

The danger of snap judgments

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Exodus 21:1–24:18

Shabbat Shekalim

Exodus 30:11-16

II Kings 12:1-16

It is hard to be a judge, yet we often are great at judging others. It is hard to be a defense attorney and stand up for your client, and it is hard to be a prosecutor and put people away for their wrongdoings.

I think that this is precisely the reason why Parashat Mishpatim, known as “The Book of the Covenant,” is so detailed when it comes to the “rules to live by.”  To take it one step further, Mishpatim is not just about rules for living; it is about rules and laws for living a particular form of life: an ethical and honest life, a life of judicial integrity.

Among with numerous rules, the Torah reading this week highlights a few specific types of ethical behavior for the courts of law. One of the most important is that we must be impartial. You cannot give the upper hand to the majority view, or in modern times, I would like to think that this encompasses not being swayed by the media or political power in rendering a legal decision.

By extension, we should not take sides simply because someone is rich or poor (Exodus 23:2-3). The goal of a law like this is to foster “judicial integrity.” The problem is that achieving such integrity is easier said than done.

One of the greatest challenges that we all face, whether in or out of a court of law, is trying not to be judgmental.

Whether we like it or not, judging other people is natural and frequently instinctual. Often we judge knowingly while other times subconsciously. Sometimes I think that we are too quick to judge and, in so doing, we are often wrong.

In Pirkei Avot, “The Ethics of our Fathers,” there is the famous saying of Joshua, the son of Perachiah, who taught, “Select a master/teacher for yourself; acquire a colleague for study; when you assess people, tip the balance in their favor.” (Pirkei Avot 1:6)

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes, “If you are unfamiliar with the Talmudic aphorism ‘judge the whole of a person favorably,’ that is probably because it is usually translated inaccurately as ‘judge everyone favorably,’ or paraphrased as ‘give everyone the benefit of the doubt.’” (“The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living”)

It is easy to judge someone based on wrongdoing, social stereotype or stigma. And that is, I think, one of the reasons why our Torah portion spells out every law in such detail, specifically when it comes to judicial integrity.

The Torah recognizes that it is really hard to be honest, to be truthful, and to not give in to our own personal biases about other people before hearing the whole story.

We immediately go to the negative aspects of a person’s character. Even if a person has lived a life of integrity, the media and societal norms cause us to focus on the blemishes.

What we should do is follow the advice of Telushkin and “not rely exclusively on one or two bad things you know about the person; [but instead] be influenced by the good things you know as well, particularly if they are more significant.”

When we read the Decalogue last week, I was struck by these famous words: “If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples … and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6)

There again we find the word brit (covenant) between us and God, which follows nicely with this week’s Torah portion, “The Book of the Covenant,” our instruction manual for fulfilling our side of the agreement. How do we fulfill our end of the bargain? Our portion sets out the ways for us to live a life of judicial integrity, to truly judge the whole of a person.

I admit, snap judgments are adaptive responses to life experiences. With people, we need to be more nuanced, slow to judge, willing to look at the whole person.

For now, I think I’ll leave legal matters to the lawyers and judges.  But I hope and pray that, both in and out of the courtroom, we can all live our lives with integrity, using balanced and sound judgment, and most importantly, being fair when judging one another.

Rabbi Corey Helfand
Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at [email protected].