Truth and Justice or Peace, What is More Imprtant?

            April 2013    
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Truth, Justice or Peace?

By Larry Fine

What do you think is more important? Truth and justice or peace?

Interestingly, we find a similar question in the Torah. In the Torah portion of "Jethro", Jethro being the father-in-law of Moses, a similar situation comes to play a significant role.

To understand clearer a little background information will come in handy: Moses had married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro. When Moses, who had run away from Egypt to save his life, ended up in the desert he met and married Zipporah. Later, after G-d had revealed Himself to Moses and told him to go to Egypt and take the Jews out, Moses bid farewell to his father-in-law and left, but due to certain circumstances that we shall ignore, he did not bring Zipporah with him to Egypt; she remained with Jethro, her father.

After Moses brought the ten plagues upon Pharaoh and the Egyptian people and then he led the Jews through the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea, the Jews arrived in the Sinai desert next to Mount Sinai. It was at this point in time that Jethro comes to Moses at the Israelite's encampment with Zipporah and Moses' two sons.

After the customary exchange of greetings and pleasantries the first day passes nicely. The next day, Jethro comes out of his tent and see Moses is sitting in judgment from the early morning to the late afternoon. Jethro asks Moses what is going on - to which Moses responds that he is sitting in judgment on the people to judge between problems between the many people (perhaps as many as three million people). Jethro tells Moses that these long hours are absurd, Moses alone is not enough to do this, he needs to appoint other judges and if not, both Moses and the people who stand in line from the morning to the evening just to get a hearing will expire from weariness.

Surprisingly enough, Moses actually listens to his father-in-law's suggestion and appoints low level judges to take the burden off of Moses. Beside the surprise of a son-in-law actually listening to a father-in-law, which is very unusual indeed, there is another question that pops up. Why didn't Moses think of this himself?

If you think that since G-d did not tell Moses to set up a lower court system, how could he listen to Jethro to do such a thing? But rather the answer according to Rabbi Chaim Berlin was that Moses was plugged into G-d. When a problem arouse, Moses was able to connect through his great power of prophecy and give the correct answer to the litigants. A system of lower judges could not do this; they would have to rely on their native intelligence to solve the problems presented to them. This being said, it would mean that their legal decisions would be based on the judges' personal intelligence and ability to negotiate a settlement between two opposing sides. This would mean that the decision would not be the proper decision according to the truth that is known only from G-d.

At first Moses believed that when making a judgment between two litigants, truth should prevail. But Jethro's suggestion was that truth, while important, is not as important as peace. Moses reconsidered his position and agreed with Jethro that truth and justice was not as important as having peaceful relations between people.

There actually is a similar story in the Talmud (Baba Metziah 49b). It is the story of an oven. Rabbi Eliezer and the Rabbis had a very serious argument. If an oven became ritually impure, the Torah required that it be broken up and only then did the ritual impurity leave it. The question was what if some one put together the pieces after it was broken, did the ritual impurity return? Rabbi Eliezer said no and the rabbis said yes.

Rabbi Eliezer was adamant that he was correct. He told the rabbis that if he was correct let the Carob tree move from its location by 100 cubits. The tree did move but the rabbis were not impressed; they told him that you do not bring a proof from a tree.

Then Rabbi Eliezer said that let the nearby stream of water testify that he was correct by flowing uphill. The steam began to flow uphill but the rabbis were adamant, you can not bring a proof from a stream.

Rabbi Eliezer then said that if he were correct let the building prove it. The building began to collapse. Rabbi Yehosua objected and the building stopped falling but remained in a leaning position out of respect for the two opposing rabbis.

Finally Rabbi Eliezer said that if he were correct let heaven send a voice to proclaim it. A voice came out of heaven and proclaimed, "What are you all arguing with Rabbi Eliezer for!" At this point, the rabbis protested and proclaimed, "The Torah is not in Heaven, it is down here on earth since G-d has given it to us. We do not listen to voice from heaven to declare what is right and wrong since the Torah has told us that we must follow in legal decisions the majority." This concluded the argument between Rabbi Eliezer and the rabbis; the decision being won by the rabbis.

The interesting point here is that the heavens agreed with Rabbi Eliezer's position. Yet the fact that in heaven this was the truth; the rabbis rejected it and said it is our decisions down here on earth that count. This is as if to say, we must live in this world and we must decide according to the Torah's own rules what is right and wrong according to the evidence that is before us. What is absolute truth in heaven is not as important as our decisions down here.

Again this is similar to the difference between truth and justice prevailing or peace. Again, peace is more important than truth and justice.

And so it is in the case of the Sotah, the women suspected of going astray and having relations with another man. A portion of the Torah is erased into water and given to her to drink to see if she is telling the truth in denying the charges. We see here the importance of peace; the importance of bringing a husband and wife back together again is so important that we will erase a Torah, an unheard of thing, just to bring peace into the world.

Again and again, we see the importance of peace, even over the Torah's own rulings. May we merit to learn from this the importance of pursuing peace even at the expense of truth and justice.


from the April 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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