Perceptions Of Justice

People's perceptions of a society are often based on that society's judicial system.

Commentary on Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22

If you were told you could give one last message to your descendants, what would you tell them?

That is the challenge that confronts Moses. The Jewish nation that he has forged and guided for forty years in the desert stands poised to enter the land of Canaan. But Moses knows that he will not be allowed to accompany them; he is destined to die in the desert. The entire book of Deuteronomy, starting with this portion, consists of his farewell message.

It is surprising that at so dramatic a juncture, Moses’ opening remarks focus much attention on an issue that applies to a small percentage of the population, the creation of a judicial system: “Hear out your fellows, and decide justly between anyone and a fellow Israelite or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no one, for judgment is God’s” (1:16-17).

Since the average citizen is neither a judge nor an advocate, and does not usually spend much time in a courtroom, why does Moses make this issue so central to his message?

Perhaps it is because peoples’ perception of a society’s justice or lack thereof is so heavily influenced by its legal rulings. The number of Soviet citizens sentenced to jail for dissident activities in the Soviet Union in the 1970’s represented an infinitesimally small percentage of the population. But it was the unjustly sentenced “prisoners of conscience” that caused people throughout the world to see the Soviet Union as an unjust society.

Indeed, in our country, the common perception that numerous criminals are acquitted on the basis of technicalities causes many Americans to feel that criminal justice is unjust, even though the percentage of such cases is small.

And so, as the Jews prepare to establish their state, Moses reminds them that a just society starts with equal justice before the law.

Reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

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Parashat Devarim: Summary

Moses recounts to the Israelites episodes from the 40 years in the wilderness; he encourages the Israelites in their upcoming conquest of the land of Canaan.