Rabbi Yechiel Brukner
Former Rosh Kollel in Munich
We all know the value of truth. We devote considerable efforts to teaching our children, our peers, and ourselves to stay clear of falsehood and to adhere to the path of truth. We are taught that emet (truth) is HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s “signature”. We recognize that mutual trust is based on the truth.
In addition, judges must consider truth above all else, and thus the Torah warns:
“You shall not commit a perversion of justice, and you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness (tzedek) shall you judge your friend.” (Vayikra 19:15)
Yonatan ben Uziel explains the end of the pasuk:
“With truth shall you judge your friends.”
In other words, justice must be predicated on the truth.
Rabbenu Bechaye cites the Zohar and asserts that the law must be upheld with tzedek (righteousness):
“One must judge a person with righteousness and not pervert justice. For one who upholds justice, establishes the King’s Throne, as it says, ‘Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your Throne.’ (Tehillim 89:15) But if one perverts justice, he harms the Throne of the King and scorns His honor and even causes the Divine Presence to depart.”
Clearly, a judge must always ensure that truth prevails.
Two questions arise from the aforementioned pasuk:
1. What is the difference between tzedek (righteousness) and mishpat (judgment)?
2. In light of the fact that the beginning of the pasuk refers to a courtroom setting, why does the pasuk end with the expression “your friend”? Moreover, as the Kli Yakar asks:
“Can it be that only his friend must be judged with righteousness, but one who is not his friend does not [need to be judged with righteousness]?”
Rashi apparently has these two questions in mind when he cites Chazal (BT Shavuot 30a) in his second explanation for this pasuk:
“Judge your fellow towards the scale of merit.”
Thus, according to Rashi, tzedek means zechut (favor) – rather than emet (truth) – and the pasuk teaches us that one must judge one’s friend favorably. In other words, this pasuk is not merely addressed to judges in a courtroom. Rather, it applies to all of us, whether we are at home, at work, in the beit midrash, in shul, or in any other location where interpersonal communication occurs.
But how can one word – tzedek – have two such diametrically opposed meanings? While “truth” denotes absolute judgment, “favor” does not necessarily refer to the absolute, objective truth.
Yet, perhaps this is the pasuk’s message. There are actually two types of “truth” – the truth of the courtroom and the truth of our social lives. The latter does not always have to be absolute and uncompromising. Compassion must also come into play – even in some situations when it appears to be excessive or unwarranted based on the objective facts. After all, interpersonal relations are only possible when we choose to give our fellows the benefit of the doubt. Furthermore, judging each other favorably enables us to live together with love and understanding.
May we all be privileged to enjoy a love of truth and a truth of love.
On a related note, a certain Jew, who was privileged to be the first child to receive a brit milah in Satmar, Hungary (today, Romania), after the Holocaust, lives here in Munich. He reports that over 18,000 of Satmar’s Jews were murdered in Auschwitz by the evil Nazis ym”sh. By the time the war was over, only one of the town’s shuls remained standing.
When the survivors entered the shul, they noticed that the bulletin board which had been used to announce the time for shekiyah and the name of each week’s parshat shavua was still hanging on the wall. The bulletin board’s glass cover was cracked, and just below the crack, the survivors observed the words “Acharei Mot – Kedoshim” (literally, “after the death of the holy ones” – refers to the names of this week’s double parsha).
Words cannot describe the raw emotions which gripped the wretched survivors – orphaned and bereaved, tortured and ailing – as they identified the incredible sight.
Immediately, they decreed that neither the glass nor the name of the parsha was to be touched. And indeed, to this very day, that cracked bulletin board continues to hang in Satmar’s sole surviving shul.