In Parashat Devarim, Moshe recalls his appointment of judges, and the instructions he gave them for how to approach their responsibilities. One of the commands he issued was, “Ka-katon ka-gadol tishma’un” – “Listen to the small as to the big” (1:17). Targum Onkelos, as explained by Rashi, understands this command to mean that judges must treat the “smaller” and “larger” members of society equally. A judge may not compassionately rule in favor of a pauper in his case against a wealthy and powerful person in order to help, or rule in favor of the prominent individual as an expression of honor and deference. A person’s socioeconomic status should play no role in the judge’s decision, as the judge must issue his verdict based strictly upon the facts and the relevant laws.
Rashi also brings a different reading of the verse, from the Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (8a). The Gemara cites Reish Lakish as explaining that the words “katon” and “gadol” in this verse refer not to the respective statures of the litigants, but rather to the magnitude of the dispute brought before the judge. According to Reish Lakish, the Torah here requires judges to approach small cases with the same level of urgency as big cases; a case involving a small sum of money should not be delayed in deference to a case involving a large sum. In Reish Lakish’s words, “A case involving a peruta [small coin] should be as important to you as a case of one hundred manneh [a form of currency].” The Shulchan Arukh (C.M. 15:1) rules accordingly, writing, “The judge must first preside over the case which came before him first,” rather than granting precedence to the case which he deems more important (as the Sema explains, referencing the Gemara’s comment).
Underlying this halakha, perhaps, is the notion that even small problems feel big in the eyes of the people involved. Very often, people are vexed, troubled and distressed by issues which to others seem trivial and petty. They face problems which they consider “urgent” but to others appear unworthy of much attention, let alone emotional turmoil. The Torah commands, “Ka-katon ka-gadol tishma’un” – to show sensitivity to other people’s small problems just as we would to their big problems. “A case involving a peruta should be as important to you as a case of one hundred manneh.” If we see somebody distraught over a “peruta,” over a relatively minor and inconsequential crisis, we should nevertheless lend assistance and support just as we would if the struggle involved a “manneh.” What appears to us as a trivial problem may very well be felt by the other person as a very large problem. And so while for ourselves we should try to maintain perspective and avoid blowing minor issues out of proportion, when it comes to other people, we must show sensitivity “ka-katon ka-gadol,” to anybody in need of encouragement and help, no matter how small the problem might seem.