Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for August 2013

Moses and Joshua

Today’s reading, Shoftim, which means ‘judges’ is so-called because the sidra opens with the words ‘You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.’


The verse which follows is repeated in the rabbinic Ethics of the Fathers and in our siddur:


‘You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe.’

Devarim 16:19


The expression ‘show partiality’ doesn’t really convey the interesting metaphor in the Hebrew Lo takir panim v’lo tikkach shochad. ‘You shall regard no faces and take no bribe.’


From a previous verse in Deuteronomy, we read that an attribute of God is that He is not partial and takes no bribe, or, in a more traditional translation, ‘God…who regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward.’

Devarim 10:17


Asher lo yissa panim v’lo yikkah shochad, the literal meaning of which is He does not lift up faces and takes no bribe.


In Pirke Avot (4:29), you find the same phrase, V’lo masso fanim, [God] does not lift up faces, and on page 172 of the siddur, again V’lo masso fanim v’lo mikkach shohad, ‘He shows to favour and takes no bribe.’


Respecting persons, acknowledging faces, lifting up the face, showing favouritism is seen as  a corrupt practice, which implies a recognition of who might be able to return a favour or who might gainfully be treated as important. This sort of respect works to the advantage of the powerful, influential or rich, who are in a position to return favours.


Masso fanim is part of everyday life and is understandable. The celebrity gets the best table in the best restaurant and the millionaire doesn’t have to wait in line for the bank clerk. Researchers found that, in job interviews, good looks and height are both advantages. You see why Napoleon had to take Europe by force. When Napoleon hadEurope, it was a good thing to be related to him.


Well, Deuteronomy tells us not to be snobbish or sycophantic in dealing with persons, and, in the wider context, it implies that we owe respect to a person for their humanity rather than their status.


There’s a Chasidic story of a certain famous rabbi whose distinction and erudition were belied by his insignificant appearance and ragged clothes. Some yeshiva students encountered him and were disrespectful, even treating him roughly. Afterwards they were mortified to learn it was the great Rabbi Poloni, and went to see him to beg his pardon.’


‘Please accept our apology and forgive our rude behaviour ,’ they begged. ‘We had no idea it was you.’


‘I can’t do that, ‘ said the rabbi, shocking the students who expected him to be kindly and forgiving. ‘I would forgive you,’ he added, ‘but I’m just not in a position to do so. You apologized to me because of who I am. But what about the person you thought I was?’

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