Reading Shoftim at Jury Duty — By Ben

Photo by Mordy Steinfeld

I find it interesting that during the week of the Torah portion of Shoftim, literally judges, I happen to be at the LA county courthouse for jury duty. Clearly Hashem is sending me a message. Though I certainly can’t write about the case, I can reflect upon the few things I do know and see if I can make some connections to the parsha.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, – Justice Justice shall you Pursue.

The above phrase is a famous verse from Shoftim. Though I’m sure we all agree that justice should be done, but given the fallible nature of our courts, both locally and nationally, as well as recent court decisions and social justice movements, there is much less trust in the judicial system these days. As disillusioned as many of us may be at the man made courts, that disappointment pales in comparison to the injustice of the world at large.

Recently, I’ve been writing about the suffering of the innocent and the prosperity of the wicked. We all know someone who works really hard at something but can’t seem to get what they are struggling for. Whether that is a stable job, a spouse, a child, or even a decent place to live. And to an even grander degree, whole swaths of populations suffer from drought, famine, illness, and a slew of other challenges. In short, where is God’s justice?

Legally Blind Justice

One answer is that, in truth, we see a very limited perspective of reality. There is no instance where we are aware of all evidence and all concerning factors to make an informed judgment. Even in a thorough court-case, things get botched. Coincidentally, I was at a Shabbat meal just last week where one of the guests was a forensic pathologist. He told us that he was on a case where a woman accused someone of rape and that she had been drugged. Her lawyers sent strands of her hair to an FBI lab to analyze if she had ingested a particular drug commonly used in such a crime. Sure enough, the FBI technician confirmed the presence of the drug via her hair. Clear evidence, right?

Well the guest said that it’s not enough to establish that a drug is present in the system, but that when the drug is ingested the body breaks it down into by products which would confirm that the victim actually consumed the drug. The by-products were not found and the judge threw out the evidence. You’d think that the Federal Bureau of Investigation would know how to analyze evidence. And that’s only concerning science we think we understand. Imagine how much affects us that we have no clue about. The point is what we think is injustice, may in fact, be quite the opposite.

Judaism believes that the narrow view we have of our lives is a pinprick compared to all of eternity. We have no clue the depth and scope of the factors that affect our lives and how what happens now will be essential for determining our eternity.

A Whole System of Justice

According to the Ramchal’s book Derech Hashem (The Way of God), not only is justice important in the spiritual realms, the layout of heaven has a court system!

“The spiritual realm therefore contains courts of justice and deliberating bodies, with appropriate rules and procedures. God arranged these various tribunals consisting of spiritual being in particular systems and levels. All these are to be judged are brought before these courts and what subsequently happens is a result of their decrees.” (Section II:6:1)

Every event, every coincidence, every fortune and misfortune happens as a result of judgements by these heavenly courts. A person’s merits are judged against their sins, which are factored with their potential and destiny in consideration and are done so with the utmost precision.

But there are some interesting things about this process. The prosecuting attorney is none other than the Satan. Yes Judaism believes in Satan. But not as an opposing force to God, but as one of His messengers. In fact in Hebrew, the satan just means “the accuser.” However, the Satan doesn’t always bring a case against an individual. This is a possible reason why if someone does something wrong yet there doesn’t seem to be immediate retribution. It’s not that the person has gotten off scott free, but that the Satan is letting the evidence stack up to have a better case later.

Another interesting detail about this process is that there are no witnesses. On an earthly court there MUST be witnesses. This parsha even says so, “The matter must be confirmed by the testimony of two witnesses.” In fact, in a Jewish supreme court case, for a capital crime, there must be two witnesses and they have to warn the transgressor that what they are doing is illegal and will result in capital punishment. Otherwise the accused goes free. Yet in heaven, no witnesses? Instead there are “Agents.” Everything in the physical world has a spiritual entity overseeing and guiding it. In the heavenly court, these agents are called in with a perfect accounting. Because of this testimony, heaven has a perfect record of everything that happens, as Perkei Avos 2:1 says “Know what there is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.” There’s no biases or influenced testimony. Just the facts.

One last interesting idea, Hashem Himself often presides over the court cases in heaven, watching. Once the judgment is pronounced, Hashem may completely disregard the verdict, giving mercy where it seems to be undeserved, or strict justice when it appears unnecessary. Because even when we think we see everything, it is impossible for us to understand His Wisdom.

The Witnesses Below

As I mentioned above, here on Earth, court cases must have witnesses and they must be trust worthy. Other religions are known for the exclamation, “Testify!” Why is testimony so important? Swearing an oath of truth is the foundation of trust for any system. So much is written about an oath, but most notably is that it is found three times in the 10 Commandments. Don’t take Hashem’s name in vain, refers to when swearing an oath, and not bearing false witness refers to court cases. What’s the third? Keeping Shabbos.

Photo by TikkunGer

Shabbos is inherently connected to the idea that Hashem created the world in the span of a week. (Whether that is units of 24 hours or not is a separate discussion.) When Jews keep Shabbos it is a declaration that Hashem created the world and that we trust in that He runs it. Because of that trust we can take our hands off of the wheel for 1 day each week. What could possibly be a more powerful testimony? In fact, the first thing that is said after praying the evening prayer of maariv on Shabbos night is literally a testimony (preferably said standing with another individual as witnesses once did.)

“Thus were finished the heaven and the earth and all their legion. Finish did God on the Seventh Day His work which He had done and He had abstained on the Seventh Day from all His work which He had done. God blessed the Seventh Day and sanctified it, because on it He had abstained from all His work which God created to make.” (Bereishis 2:1-3)

From this, the Jewish people become God’s witnesses, each and every Shabbos.

My Day in Court

When I received my summons in the mail, I delayed my court date as far as I could (which was six months.) I specifically waited for the difficult month of Av to end and made my call in date the first of Elul. Little did I realize that Elul is all about preparing for the most important court date of all, Rosh Hashanah, the day of Judgement. Of course I was going to get called in to serve.

There are things I could have done to get out of my jury appearance. Though I wouldn’t call these methods perjury, I wouldn’t say they’re the most honest methods either. The way we conduct justice here in this world will be the measure by which we’ll be judged in the next. Because of that, I went in without protest.

When I found myself in the courtroom, the judged announced that it would be an unusually long case and if anyone had any personal hardships, to please let the court know. Well being that Rosh Hashanah would be smack dab in the middle of this case, I listed that as a hardship. Who knew that the Jewish day of Judgement would get me excused from jury duty?

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