Torah as a never-ending cycle teaches us about ourselves as well as the text itself. As we encounter each parsha anew, we see which different parts catch our attention this time around, and how our reactions to those texts have changed.
This year, as I reviewed samples of Rashi and Ramban, I noticed a few comments which remind us how hard we can find it to find the truth. Rashi noticed the Torah’s warnings to judges, lo takir panim ve-lo tikach shochad, do not show partiality and do not take bribes, and thought the Torah was laying out two different ways we can unwittingly obscure the truth.
The Delicacy of the Courts
Partiality suppresses the truth long before a verdict, Rashi says. A judge who openly favors one litigant creates problems whether or not he tilts the verdict to the side he favored. Once he treats one side better, the other side may decide to stop trying, since it will seem futile to offer claims or proofs to a closed mind (whether or not it is; as it happens, news coverage of a trial going on as I write these words has focused on the judge’s nastiness to one side, and quoted the lawyer on the disfavored side as saying he’s adjusted his presentation to avoid the judge’s nastiness. That’s the problem of lo takir panim to which Rashi pointed).
Favoritism does not have to be nefarious to be a problem, nor do bribes. For Rashi, even money given to a judge innocently, urging him (sincerely) to seek the true verdict, will still corrupt him. As he sifts through the evidence, Rashi thinks the judge will find himself drawn to the version of events which favors the litigant who gave him the money or gift. He will not see it, and the litigant will not have meant for it to happen, but justice will have been perverted.
Preserving Our Ability to Spot the Truth
I believe the lessons Rashi taught us about courts apply to each of us as well. When we honor some types of people over others, we broadcast whom we see as worth emulating, and discourage the less honored from trying to be heard. Should we choose whom we honor poorly (or for less than valuable reasons), we’ll have closed ourselves to the important truths the dishonored could have brought us, had we opened space for them to do so.
Our powers of self-justification mean money is as much a danger for us as for a judge. Given two options, we, like Rashi’s judges, will become sure (sincerely sure), the claim which benefits us is also the truer claim. Like Rashi’s judges, we need to guard ourselves from slipping away from truth without realizing it.
The People Around Us
Ramban gives another example. In chapter twenty, the Torah again tells the people they must remove the current inhabitants from the Land (how and why the Jews were told to remove the inhabitants from the Land, and why it was morally proper, are other important questions we cannot discuss here).
The one part of the issue I will discuss here is why we needed to remove them, according to the Torah. Verse 20:18 warns us those nations will teach us to ape the abominations they perform to the powers they worship, and we will sin to Hashem.
I might have thought the verse meant the nations will lure us (not coerce us; the Torah never implies any force on their part. We will find their ways attractive, and will adopt them) to join them in their avodah zarah, service to those other powers. Ramban disagrees; he thinks the Torah means the Jews will adopt those abominations into Judaism. Attracted by the nations’ ways of worshipping their gods, we will convince ourselves they are a good and appropriate way to serve Hashem, despite the Torah’s clear warnings.
Three ways we can close ourselves to the truth: we can mistreat people enough that they do not share the truths they possess; we can stack the deck in such a way that we subconsciously shy away from what is actually true; and we can let what attracts us determine what we decide is true when we should know better.
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty (which I recently misattributed, and just now found out is of largely unknown origin; the phrase apparently started around the time of Thomas Jefferson, although there’s no evidence he ever said it). It’s also the price of finding the truth, of being sure we not lead ourselves where we want to go rather than where we, in truth, should be going.