At the beginning of parashat Devarim, Moses recalls how he created a system of judges so that the burden of leadership would be more evenly distributed, and lays out the foundations of the Israelite justice system (Deuteronomy 1:9-18). In Deuteronomy 1:17, he instructs: “Do not show favoritism in judgement, hear out the small like the large; do not fear a person, for judgement is God’s.” The terms “small” (קטון) and “large” (גדול) are ambiguous. Based on the beginning of the verse - the charge not to show favoritism - the plain meaning is that one should judge people of high and low status equally within the same case. However, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 8a) understands “small” and “large” to be the monetary value of different cases. The Talmud explains the implications of its interpretation: a judge should not order cases by the amount of money on which each rides. Instead, a judge should take cases in the order in which they appear. In fact, the actual language of the Talmud (attributed to Reish Lakish) is that a case of small monetary value should be as dear to a judge as one of large monetary value.
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, the great Talmudic commentator of 16th century Poland, writes that it should be obvious that cases are taken in the order in which they arrive. I assume he means that, given all of the warnings the Torah gives to judges about not showing favoritism, there should not need to be a specific law directing judges to prioritize cases based on when they arrive rather than on their size. However, Rabbi Eidels suggests that the Torah does need this more specific prohibition because, at least in his world, judges were paid for their time. They were more likely to be able to collect their full payment from claimants in a large monetary case - more likely to be people who deal with large sums of money - than from claimants in a small court case. Therefore, the Torah warns that even though a judge might not receive a large reward, or even their just reward, by taking cases in the order in which they are received, a judge should forgo worrying about receiving proper payment and instead give equal priorities to all cases.
Modern judges are usually salaried and do not have this same concern. However, this Talmudic law might extend to many other professions and situations in life. Many times, when I have been in a conversation with one person and seen another person across the room with whom a conversation would be of great benefit to me, I have attempted to delay the first conversation to speak to the second person. At times, I have paid attention to a conversation only proportionally to how much it can help me, minimizing the needs to the person speaking with me. Hopefully, I am the only person guilty of this, but I doubt it. In our parasha, the Torah reminds me how wrong this kind of behaviour is.
Of course, this rule has limits. The Talmud in tractate Sh’vuot (30a) teaches that one should prioritize the cases of Torah scholars over other cases. The commentators dispute whether this only applies if two cases arrive before a judge simultaneously, or if it also covers times when the case which does not involve Torah scholars came to the judge first. Similarly, in our own lives, it is true that one should sometimes prioritize meeting with their boss, parent, or a high ranking official over meeting with others. However, even these choices should be a matter of dispute. The Torah teaches us that, at the end of the day, we should strive to treat each person who wishes to speak with us equally, without worrying about what personal reward we might get as a result. We should, paraphrasing Reish Lakish, make every person who wishes to speak with us as dear to us as the next person. We should focus on the individual people in front of us now, rather than worrying about what other conversations we could be having - even if we think those other conversations might have a bigger impact on our own lives, or even on the the world, in the future. May we be blessed with the kindness and forbearance to treat each person speaking with us with all the respect and attentiveness they deserve.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
Reb. Joel Goldstein