One who visits the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem cannot but be impressed by the artistic motifs in the building and the immense care taken to portray in symbolic fashion at every step the face of justice as the building’s architects envisioned it. The Supreme Court’s location, on a hill overlooking and casting its shadows over the Knesset building, is explained as an attempt to show that the law applies equally to everyone, even to elected officials. The principle of separation of powers, which constitutes one of the cornerstones of modern democracy, gave rise to tension between the various branches of government and necessitated regulation of, and the demarcation of boundaries between, their activities. This physical and conceptual proximity between the judiciary and legislature is alluded to at the beginning of our parasha. The Midrash asks why the section of dinim (civil law), the list of halachot and commands governing interpersonal relations, appears here, at the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim, just after the laws dealing with the construction of the altar, mentioned at the conclusion of the previous parasha, Yitro. The Midrash answers that this juxtaposition alludes to the requirement to situate the Sanhedrin adjacent to the mizbei’ach (altar). Indeed, as we know, during the time of the Beit Ha’mikdash the Sanhedrin, the supreme judicial body within the Jewish judicial system, had its offices in the “lishkat ha’gazit” – a chamber within the Templecomplex. The Gemara in Masechet Sanhedrin (7b) adds two more requirements that we derive from this juxtaposition. The pasuk says regarding the mizbei’ach, “You shall not ascend My altar with steps” (Shemot 20:23); ascending the altarmust be done via a ramp, rather than stairs. Bar Kapara extracts from this that the Torah commands the judges to be patient in deliberation, and not to reach their decisions hastily. Rabbi Eliezer learns from here that a judge should not “step on the heads” of the people, meaning, he should not hold himself to be above the litigants. The common thread connecting all these three imperatives is the demand that the judge conduct himself with modesty and humility. Indeed, the Rambam writes the following concerning the appointment of judges (Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:7): “Just as Moshe Rabbenu was humble, so must every judge be humble.” This humility must express itself in three areas. On the personal level, the judge is required to treat the litigants who come to him for trial with respect and dignity. On the intellectual level, the judge bears an obligation to consult with his colleagues with regard to the case at hand. Halacha states that even if a judge hears a case involving similar circumstances to a case he previously tried, he should not render a decision hastily. If there is in the city someone whose scholarship surpasses his own, the judge must consult with him prior to issuing his ruling (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 3:1-2). On the institutional level, the Sanhedrin must realize that the judicial process occurs in the shadow of the mizbei’ach, and at every step along the way they must gear their work towards the fulfillment of Hashem’s will. For good reason our parasha draws an equation between the judge and God: “the two people’s case shall come unto ‘elohim’ [literally, ‘God,’ here a reference to judges]” (Shemot 22:8). Significantly, however, our parashaemphasizes that in this balance between the different branches of authority, the mizbei’ach cannot serve to protect someone sentenced by the Sanhedrin to capital punishment. The Torah states, “If a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall [even] take him from My altar to be put to death” (Shemot 21:14). The Gemara comments that even if the convicted violator was a kohen who wished to perform the avoda (service) in the Beit Ha’mikdash, the sentence is carried out. His elevated status as kohen does not grant him immunity from the execution of judgment.
This explains that which we say in our shemoneh esrei prayer, when we ask, “Restore our judges as of old.” The restoration of Torah law to its former status does not suffice; we yearn for the day when we will have judges who act with properhumility towards their litigants and their judgment, and with an awareness of their mission to implement Hashem’s will in the world.