This week’s portion is about laws, the legal systems for administering laws that will need to be set up in the Promised Land, and the principles that are supposed to govern these. The overriding principle: (16:20) “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” The legal system set forth in Shoftim will ostensibly provide a framework for a just society – one in which everyone is treated fairly according to the society’s rules and mores – which in turn provides that society with stability, which is one thing needed for the people of that society to flourish. Consequently, the emphasis is not simply on obeying laws but on achieving justice. Additionally, the Torah recognizes that laws need interpretation and that that interpretation may vary over time. Thus, we are taught to follow the rulings of judges of our own time.
In actuality, justice does not seem to be the prime motivator in modern legal practice, or maybe not so modern. Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 2, in which “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers“ appears was written over 400 years ago. And let’s not forget Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-1853), in which a court case drags on so long that the estate in question is entirely consumed by the legal fees. The attorney’s motivation is to “win,” which is defined in business terms: maximizing return on investment. That is, the attorney wants the most favorable verdict (e.g., acquittal even if the defendant is guilty) at the least cost (time, effort, monetary outlay). Very businesslike, practical, and not necessarily unjust, but “justice” per se (for all concerned) often takes a back seat as a consequence.
In 16:19, we read, “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality,” for example, favoring a litigant because of his wealth or poverty (today, besides wealth or class, partiality can arise based on factors like celebrity, race, or sex). The commentators describe lack of partiality as extending back from the final judgement through the hearing and even to the appointment of the judge. More broadly, the “justice” (tzedek) that is to be sought is fair treatment, as in 19:21, “… life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth [that reminds me, I have a dentist appointment later today], hand for hand, foot for foot,” the third time this general formula calling for equitable compensation (referred to in Latin legalese as lex talionis) occurs in the Torah. In Shoftim, fair, impartial treatment still allows special situations to be taken into account. And so, in addition to the expected laws concerning lying, bribery, reliable witnesses, requiring more than one witness, and the like, this is also where we find laws for providing for the priests and Levites, offering peace to towns during war before attacking them and not destroying their food trees, allowing men who are newly betrothed or new householders to stay at home instead of going to war, and the constraints on any king the Israelites may choose in the future. As with meat-eating, the permission to have a king is given reluctantly, in recognition of the Israelites’ emotional limitations.
Full disclosure: I work in the Legal Department of my company. IGP
From the March 1995 “Reader’s Digest”
There Oughta Be A Law By Richard Johnson
It seems that we have laws for everything but the stuff that can really get on our nerves. For instance, “there oughta be a law” to protect citizens from the airline passenger who maintains his seat in a fully reclined position while an in-flight meal is being served. So I propose that we start passing some much-needed legislation to crack down on the following offenses:
Resisting A Rest: Repeatedly disrupting an entire row of patrons at a theater or sports event by heading for refreshments, frequent rest-room visits, and leg-stretching.
Euphonious Assault: Playing the car radio at ear-splitting volume so the next driver is blasted into the back seat.
Lane Sharking: Parking over two spaces in a crowded lot so that the adjacent space is rendered useless.
Coffee-right Infringement: Hurry-up restaurant employees who are too quick to bring your bill at the end of a meal.
Violation Of Individual Swivel Rights: Rotating a circular merchandise rack while another shopper is browsing on the other side.
Breaking And Exiting: Slipping away after dropping a bottle of pancake syrup while in an empty grocery-store aisle.
Sorry I Missed Him’meanor: Intentionally returning unwanted phone calls when you know the party who called will be out.
Kidyapping: Failure to get off the subject of your children.
Poly-gamey: Attempting to watch two televised football games and a tennis tournament simultaneously on a Sunday afternoon by means of rapid-fire, remote-control channel surfing.
Labor Fraud: Politicians who roll up their sleeves only when posing for campaign photographs.
There was the cartoon showing two people fighting over a cow. One was pulling the cow by the tail; the other was pulling on the horns. Underneath was a lawyer milking the cow.
A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats.
It was so cold last winter that I saw a lawyer with his hands in his own pockets.
A man walked into a bar with his alligator and asked the bartender, “Do you serve lawyers here?”.
“Sure do,” replied the bartender.
“Good,” said the man. “Give me a beer, and I’ll have a lawyer for my ‘gator.”
A woman and her little girl were visiting the grave of the little girl’s grandmother. On their way through the cemetery back to the car, the little girl asked, “Mommy, do they ever bury two people in the same grave?”
“Of course not, dear.” replied the mother, “Why would you think that?”
“The tombstone back there said ‘Here lies a lawyer and an honest man.'”
The defendant who pleads their own case has a fool for a client, but at least there will be no problem with fee-splitting.
Disorder In The Court [selected]
Things people actually said in court, word for word [Oldies but goodies. My sister, who has read many court transcripts, insists stuff like this is indeed said. IGP]:
Q: What is your date of birth?
A: July fifteenth.
Q: What year?
A: Every year.
Q: What gear were you in at the moment of the impact?
A: Gucci sweats and Reeboks.
Q: This myasthenia gravis-does it affect your memory at all?
Q: And in what ways does it affect your memory?
A: I forget.
Q: You forget. Can you give us an example of something that you’ve forgotten?
Q: All your responses must be oral, OK? What school did you go to?
Q: What was the first thing your husband said to you when he woke that morning?
A: He said, “where am I Cathy?”
Q: And why did that upset you?
A: My name is Susan.
Q: Do you know if your daughter has ever been involved in the voodoo occult?
A: We both do.
A: We do.
Q: You do?
A: Yes, voodoo.
Q: Trooper, when you stopped the defendant, were your red and blue lights flashing?
Q: Did the defendant say anything when she got out of her car?
A: Yes sir.
Q: What did she say?
A: What disco am I at?
Q: Now doctor, isn’t it true that when a person dies in his sleep, he doesn’t know about it until the next morning?
Q: The youngest son, the twenty-year old, how old is he?
Q: Was it you or your younger brother who was killed in the war?
Q: How far apart were the vehicles at the time of the collision?
Q: So the date of conception (of the baby) was August 8th?
Q: And what were you doing at that time?
Q: She had three children, right?
Q: How many were boys?
Q: Were there any girls?
Q: Mr. Slatery, you went on a rather elaborate honeymoon, didn’t you?
A: I went to Europe, sir.
Q: And you took your new wife?
Q: How was your first marriage terminated?
A: By death.
Q: And by whose death was it terminated?
Q: Can you describe the individual?
A: He was about medium height and had a beard.
Q: Was this a male or a female?
Q: Doctor, how many autopsies have you performed on dead people?
A: All my autopsies are performed on dead people.
Q: Do you recall the time that you examined the body?
A: The autopsy started around 8:30 p.m.
Q: And Mr. Dennington was dead at the time?
A: No, he was sitting on the table wondering why I was doing an autopsy.
A little boy was taken to the dentist. It was discovered that he had a cavity that would have to be filled.
“Now, young man,” asked the dentist, “what kind of filling would you like for that tooth?”
“Chocolate, please,” replied the youngster.
A King sent out an edict that all his noblemen should swear allegiance to his name and pay him a tribute in gold pieces every year on pain of death. Many Dukes and Barons agreed and handed over the gold pieces directly, for he was known to be a ruthless and terrible ruler. But there was one Count, although he was happy to swear his allegiance, steadfastly refused to pay the tribute. The King was troubled as to what to do, for he was very fond of this particular Count, so he threw him into jail, telling him he had a week to change his mind before he would be executed.
At the end of a week, the King asked the Count if he would pay the money now rather than lose his life, but the Count said no – he would rather die.
“Very well,” said the King, you shall be beheaded at dawn tomorrow.
Dawn came, and the Count was taken to the castle roof, where a chopping block was in place and a tall executioner in a black robe was standing waiting with a large axe. Once again the King spoke to the Count: “This is your last chance – will you pay me?”
“No, never!” he replied. At this the King gave the signal to the executioner. The Count lay down with his neck on the block, and the executioner stood beside him and raised up his mighty axe. Just as he started his swing, the Count let out a mighty cry: “Stop! I’ll pay!” But it was too late – the axe fell and his head was sliced off and fell to the ground in a pool of blood.
The moral of the story is, of course, clear:
You should never hatchet your Counts until they’ve chickened!