The survey begins with a description of appointing judges. Why? Because the first message Moses wanted to make sure to convey prior to entering the Land of Israel, the message he wanted etched into their hearts, was of the importance of justice and of a fair judicial system.
This is how Moses describes the judges he appointed:
“…wise and understanding men, known among your tribes”
(Deuteronomy 1, 13)
The preeminent biblical commentator, Rashi, teaches us that the word “men” means righteous men, and “understanding” means that they can understand and derive one thing from another. Maybe it is what we refer to today as cleverness or developed intuition. And what is meant by “known among your tribes”? Rashi explains:
“Men whom you recognize, for if one were to come before me wrapped in this tallith, I would not know who he is and of what tribe he is, and whether he is suitable. But you know him, for you have raised him.”
Rashi was focusing on a pretty common issue. We meet an impressive person who looks good, speaks well, seems intelligent. But who is he really? How can we really know what he’s like? Moses turns, then, to the tribe that the potential judge comes from and asks for recommendations.
And why is this so important? When we continue and read the set of directions and warnings Moses gives the judges, we understand that this is a role that is so sensitive and important, there is no room for mediocrity.
“Hear [disputes] between your brothers and judge justly between a man and his brother, and between his litigant. You shall not favor persons in judgment; [rather] you shall hear the small just as the great; you shall not fear any man”
(Ibid Ibid, 16-17)
Moses indicates a sensitive point. Judges are people too. And when someone familiar and someone unfamiliar come to be judged, human nature might cause the judge to lean in favor of the familiar person, in which case justice is not served. And this would be terrible. This should never happen. “You shall not favor persons in judgment!” And what if the judge has a respected person and a simple person standing before him? Here too, human nature might lead to a bias in favor of the respected person. And again, justice would not be served. This should never happen. “You shall hear the small just as the great!”
And sometimes, the two people standing before the judge are neither familiar nor respected, but one of them is known to be a physically or verbally violent person. If the judge rules against him, he or his family might be harmed. And again, human nature might lead the judge to try to appease such a person. But justice must be served without the judge being concerned for his own welfare. “You shall not fear any man!”
Moses is teaching us that justice is not a luxury. We have no right to compromise with it. He explains:
“for the judgment is upon the Lord”
You, the judge, must remember that there is a supreme judge who judges all people, meaning G-d. The justice that is done in court is only a reflection of real justice, and when a judge does not rule righteously, he is abusing his office.
These values of justice and morality are at the very foundation of Judaism. Before entering the Land of Israel, Moses wants to remind the nation that these provide the right for their existence in the Land of Israel. We, who are living thousands of years following Moses’ speech, still stand and listen, learn and internalize – “For the judgment is upon the Lord.”