By Rabbi Moshe Mayerfeld
Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States once said: “My failures have been errors in judgment, not of intent.”
The balance between our desire for greatness and maintaining a sense of stability is a challenging one. The Torah demands of us not to judge others, and yet we must have a system and a court with judges in place to ensure a safe and secure society.
At the end of Yitro, we are taught the laws of the altar, and this week’s parsha of Mishpatim begins with a list of civil laws.
The order of the Torah is very calculated, so we must understand what connection these two sections have. Rashi quotes the Midrash that explains that the juxtapositions of these texts teaches us that the Sanhedrin’s high court should be placed near the altar in the Temple.
The altar and the Temple are there to remind and help the judges to focus on a very difficult task. When one is dealing constantly with criminal activity and questionable moral activities, there may be a real temptation for some to begin to look down on those we are “judging”.
There are high requirements of the judges. The verse tells us that they must be “able, God-fearing, truthful and those who despise unjust gain.”
Yet the pitfalls are real. Although questionable actions must come before the court, no human being is in the position to judge the worth of another person.
The action may be wrong, the stolen property may need to be returned or damages paid for a misused item on loan, but that says nothing of the individual.
No one knows where another person is situated on the ladder of life; where he began and how many rungs he has climbed towards being the best person he can be.
We cannot play God.
Perhaps the accused, given his life’s circumstances, is making greater, more difficult choices than the perceived finest person in the community. The judges need to draw inspiration from the holiness of the Temple and let that pervade their outlook.
These are difficult goals to reach, but such must be the aim of every judge in Israel. We too must learn from this lesson. Our journey of success cannot depend upon knocking others who are different from us.
The Temple and the altar are our guide to ensure that we see and treat every individual with the holiness that he or she was created with.