This week, we read Parshat Ki Teitzei. This Parsha is among the longest in the Torah, and it is also the Parsha that contains the most mitzvot of any Torah portion, with 74. The mitzvot treated in this Parsha encompass various aspects of Jewish law, such as how to dress, various marriage and divorce laws, labor guidelines for workers, and—most relevant to the modern age—the behavior of courts of law.
Although last week’s Parsha, Parshat Shoftim, introduced to the world the idea of organized law enforcement through police and courts of law, this week’s Parsha touches on the behavior of these bodies and introduces many laws that are still relevant today.
The twelfth article of the Colombian Constitution states, “No one will be submitted to forced disappearances; torture; or cruel, inhumane and degrading sentences.” The United States Constitution’s eighth amendment also prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” The thirteenth article of the Colombian constitution states, “All people are born free and equal under the law,” and the preamble of the US Constitution also states that “All men are created equal.”
Most of the western world today bans cruelty and (at least on paper) everyone is equal under the law; but sadly, throughout history and even to this day, this isn’t guaranteed. In many countries, most courts of law are simply a farce, where rule of law does not exist, and sentences tend to be brutal. Throughout history, most nations would execute for the pettiest of crimes, and torture was rampant.
Both last and this weeks’ Parshiyot prohibit this kind of behavior. In last week’s Parsha court systems were mentioned, along with the mention that police and courts should not abuse their power. It also mentions that courts should remain impartial. This week’s Parsha expands on those mentions. As the Torah tells us, “Thou shalt not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless… If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, and the judges judge them, by justifying the righteous and condemning the wicked, then it shall be, if the wicked man deserves to be punished… and be punished … according to the measure of his wickedness… Forty lashes he may give him, he shall not exceed...”
In the first of the two verses, G-d states, loud and clear, that justice is intended for anyone. “The stranger” refers to non-Israelites back then, now to non-Jews. To not pervert the case means to look at every case without bias. Although this might sound like a given, this is important to reiterate, as, justice is not justice if the law is different for everyone. Therefore, everyone must be equal under the law, for there to be justice.
In the second of these verses, G-d sets the guidelines for punishment. The definition of cruel and unusual punishment in biblical times was different than it is in our times, but it achieves the same goal. G-d intends that when punished, it should be reasonable for the crime committed, i.e. that it is not cruel. As a measure to this, G-d intends that if a judge gives a sentence that is too harsh, he should also be punished and step down as judge, as he is tainting the name of justice.
At the end, similar to last week’s Parsha, this week’s Parsha also encourages us to live in pursuit of justice. It tells us that, in order for there to be justice, there has to be rule of law, where everyone is treated equally. Justice means equality, for everyone, under the law. It is necessary that justice is kept by a tribunal, as, if they are not just, then who will be just?
Ezra Jinich, BBYO Colombia
Read commentary on this week's Parsha from BBYO teens around the world.
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