By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.
You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness:
You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—
nor shall you show deference to a poor person in a dispute.
Parshat Mishpatim is full of rules and laws that run the gamut of forming a society. The above set of three verses struck me this week. The first sentence seems fairly simple, almost obvious. Of course any good society should know not to join hands with the guilty, nor give any credence to unsubstantiated rumors. But the next two verses, in my eyes, show us how much harder that can be when we navigate the messy, complicated world around us.
You shall neither side with the mighty…nor shall you show deference to a poor person in a dispute. What does this mean? It means we all need to check our biases. It’s really difficult when someone we’ve come to respect, love, or even rely on is suddenly caught up in a scandal. Since the #MeToo movement and even well before, we’re not strangers to seeing those we look up to getting caught doing something they shouldn’t have done. And in some cases, our desire to preserve our image of that person might incline us to forgive them, offer them a second chance without necessarily holding them accountable for the problematic choice they made. Sometimes it’s difficult not to side with the mighty. It can be understandably tempting to justify the action, rationalize or even deny that it could have happened as it is described. But we must not carry false rumors, nor give perverse testimony so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty (or influential, powerful, beloved, respected etc.)
But “nor shall you show deference to a poor person in a dispute.” In our pursuit of justice and accountability, we mustn’t fall prey to the other temptation. We shouldn’t be venerating victimhood. We shouldn’t strip the poor of their dignity by simply pitying them. The merit of their case should be based in fact and truth. I see it all the time among friends that in an effort to transcend a “might makes right” attitude, they almost automatically root for the underdog on the basis of their status as underdog. This too is not the path to justice. This is the sort of thinking that can keep a group of poor people in a state of perpetual reliance on the help of others. It’s the sort of thinking groups like Hamas take advantage of when leaving their people in a constant state of victimhood, rather than tending to the needs of those they’re meant to be governing.
So it isn’t simple after all. Every case, every claim, every headline requires an exhausting effort to validate. Everytime we go to share a post online, are we taking care not to violate this negative command? Are making sure we aren’t carrying false rumors? Are we cautious and demanding that facts and truth be circulated? Are we certain that we are neither favoring the mighty, nor showing deference to the poor? Are we checking our bias, and doing the deep listening required to move forward as a society? There’s so much information out there, and for better and for worse, truth has never been more difficult to identify. As Rabbi Tarfon says in Pirkei Avot, “It’s not on us to finish the work, but we are not free to ignore it.” May God lead us with His good counsel.