Parashat Devarim opens the Book of Deuteronomy, the final of the Five Books of Moses. This year, Shabbat Parashat Devarim also falls on the eve of Tisha B'Av, the day of memory and mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temple, a day that over the years has become a day of memory and mourning for all Jewish tragedies.
Moses opens Parashat Devarim with words ("devarim" in Biblical Hebrew) of instruction and warnings. He is nearing the end of his life and he is worried. He has a vested interest in making sure that the nation of slaves he helped lead out of Egypt will ultimately succeed in building a society based on law and justice. Moses, who served as chief judge for the people in the wilderness, knows a thing or two about law and justice, and thus he warns the people:
"Hear out your fellow men, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God’s.” (Deuteronomy 1:16-17)
First, Moses says: Do not show partiality in judgment. That is to say, in your court of law, do not discriminate amongst persons. Every litigant must receive equal treatment, whatever their background, be they Israelite or non-Israelite.
Second, Moses says: Don't be afraid. Judges should be immune to external pressure, politics and everyday qualms. They must not succumb to the pressure of men and women of stature, or be influenced by public opinion. They must not be afraid to render decisions that are true and just, and they mustn’t fear political or popular pressure.
The words that Moses speaks to the people of Israel before entering the land of Canaan ring relevant and fresh, as if they were spoken today. Just last week, a minister in the Government of Israel – Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich – stated explicitly that the Israeli justice system must treat Arabs differently from Jews, that Jewish settlers who threw stones at IDF officers must be treated more leniently than Arabs who throw stones.
As we hear statements such as these, along with many others, we can say that the Israeli judiciary has never before faced such severe pressure against its impartiality – from political leaders and the Israeli public as well. Politicians are not only explicitly criticizing the basic judicial principles of equality and impartiality, but they are also threatening to take away the power of the courts, should they continue to stand true to these principles.
We now stand at a critical moment. With elections on the horizon, the nation has its eyes on the judiciary as politicians target the court system with populistic rhetoric and threats. And the question is: 'Are there true judges in Jerusalem?' as the saying goes. Will the judges of Israel remain true to their task? Will they judge without bias and without fear of political and populistic repercussions? This is a question whose origin lies in the field of law and justice, but it is ultimately a moral question of highest import. If we fail, as Moses warns us, we will no longer merit the Promised Land, which will spew us out and we will go into exile – which is precisely what happened on Tisha B'Av thousands of years ago.
On the eve of this Tisha B'Av, let's listen to Moses, the old prophet, the legislator, the judge, who never forsook his responsibility, and who never ceased to seek justice and truth. Let us judge justly and let us not be afraid.
Eran Baruch is the Executive Director of BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change.