SALT - Thursday, 26 Tammuz 5777 - July 20, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg

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This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of my grandfather 
Rav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l, whose yahrzeit is
22 Tamuz, July 16.

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Refua sheleima to
Malka Sarel bat Batya
and
Yosef ben Gracia,
the 450th! kidney donor/recipient team
arranged by Matnat Chaim.
May they be an inspiration to us all!

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            The Torah in Parashat Masei discusses the law requiring one who accidentally kills to relocate in one of the arei miklat – the six cities especially designated as places of refuge for inadvertent killers.  Amidst its discussion of this topic, the Torah describes the situation of accidental murder requiring relocation in an ir miklat, and it speaks of a case where the killer “does not despite him [the victim] and does seek his harm” (35:23).

            The Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (29a) interprets this verse as referring not only to the relationship between the killer and the victim, but also to the relationship between the judges presiding over the case and the killer.  If it is known that a judge harbors feelings of personal animus towards the defendant, he must recuse himself from the case.  Given the difficulty he would have maintaining objectivity, he is not permitted to preside over the case and honestly assess the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

            In some sense, we are all “judges,” and form views and opinions about other people and their actions.  This halakha reminds us of the difficulty we have in maintaining objectivity when we harbor predisposed negative feelings towards somebody.  When somebody has wronged us in the past or has aspects of his character that we find displeasing, we are far more likely to judge that person’s actions unfavorably and less likely to give him or her the benefit of the doubt.  We need to be attuned to our own biases and predispositions, and know when to “recuse” ourselves and avoid rendering judgment when we cannot honestly maintain strict impartiality.

            Interestingly, we find just several verses later the precise opposite warning.   The section of arei miklat concludes with the command not to accept a bribe from a killer seeking to exempt himself from relocating in a city of refuge, and the Torah then adds, “Ve-lo tachanifu et ha-aretz” (35:33).  The Sifrei interprets this as a prohibition against chanufa – flattery, and the Ramban explains that just as a court may not accept a bribe to absolve a killer of accountability, similarly, a court may not absolve a killer due to his impressive achievements or noble stature.  According to the Sifrei’s reading of this verse, the Torah warns against “flattering” distinguished or well-respected people in the sense of wrongly acquitting them.  Even if we have good reason to like and respect a person, this does not absolve us of the responsibility to act when that individual conducts himself an immoral or dangerous manner. 

The law of chanufa warns of how our positive disposition towards a person may cloud our judgment and cause us to justify wrongful conduct that warrants a strong response.  Together with the aforementioned rule requiring a judge to recuse himself from a case involving a defendant he dislikes, these halakhot remind us of the need to separate our personal feelings towards people from our assessment of their conduct, to ensure that we do not condemn every action performed by somebody we dislike, or approve of every action performed by somebody whom we do like.