Parashat Shoftim: We are All Judges
Parashat Shoftim begins with the command to appoint judges throughout the land: "Shoftim Ve’shoterim Titen Lecha."
While the simple meaning of this Pasuk is that it refers to courtroom judges, there is also an additional level of interpretation. The Torah is telling that "Titen Lecha" – each one of us is a judge. Throughout the day, every day, whenever we speak with or even just see another person, we judge. We make judgments about people based on how they look, what they say and what they do. This is inevitable. We are thinking beings, and we thus naturally cast judgments in our minds every time we have any sort of contact with others.
The Torah therefore instructs at the conclusion of this opening Pasuk, "Ve’shafetu Et Ha’am Mishpat Sedek" – "They shall judge the nation justly." We are bidden to give people the benefit of the doubt, rather than hastily reach negative conclusions. If we see behavior which appears to reflect negatively upon a person, we are to find a basis on which to judge that person favorably, rather than immediately assume the worst.
The Torah then adds, "Sedek Sedek Tirdof" – literally, "Justice, justice you shall pursue." This has been explained to mean that we are to go as far as we need to for the sake of giving the benefit of the doubt. We are to "pursue" a favorable judgment regardless of how far we must go, no matter how far-fetched an explanation we need to come up with.
The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat tells a story of a poor man who worked for three years for a certain wealthy person. When he completed his term of service, on Ereb Yom Kippur, he came to his boss and asked to be paid so he could support his family. The man said he was unable to pay, because he had no money. The worker asked if he could be paid through other assets – fruits, animals, land, or even houseware – but the man said he had done. The worker returned home empty-handed. Several weeks later, the employer obtained the money he needed and brought it to the worker. He paid him, and asked what he was thinking in his mind when he said he could not afford to pay. The worker he said he assumed that the employer had invested all his cash in promising business ventures, had not yet tithed his produce, lent out all his animals, leased his property to sharecroppers, and consecrated all his houseware. The employer swore that this was all correct. The worker went out on a limb to judge his employer favorably, and he turned out to be correct.
The employer then blessed him, "Just as you judged me favorably, so may you always be judged favorably."
Indeed, the Gemara there comments that if a person judges other people favorably, then Hashem will judge that person favorably.
For this reason, the Torah writes, "You shall pursue justice, in order that you live…" If we judge people favorably, then Hashem will judge us favorably, as well, and bless us with life and happiness.
It is no coincidence that Parashat Shoftim is always read around the time of Rosh Hodesh Elul, as we start preparing for the judgment of the High Holidays. During this period, especially, we must heed the message of "Sedek Sedek Tirdof" – the need to give people the benefit of the doubt and judge them favorably. As we prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we need every possible "strategy" for earning a favorable sentence. And perhaps the most effective strategy is to give others the benefit of the doubt, to view other people from a positive angle, in the merit of which we, too, will be judged favorably and blessed with a happy, healthy, successful new year, Amen.