Regarding the judges of Israel, the Torah states, “And they shall judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deuteronomy 16:18). Midrash Tanchuma comments:
“Rabbi Yehudah the son of Rabbi Shalom states: This verse teaches that the judges should strive to find merit for their people before the Holy One, Blessed is He.”
As the People of the Torah, we are to be governed by the Divine teachings, and the judges of Israel have a major role in this process. In their leadership role, they may need to rebuke those who are willfully going against a Torah teaching; nevertheless, this rebuke must come from a place of love. For example, the above teaching of the Midrash reminds the judges that they must always be aware of the good and the potential within the people they are judging; thus, when they speak or pray about the People of Israel before the Judge of All, they should strive to find merit for their people.
This teaching also applies to each of us, for in our daily life we assume the role of “judges” whenever we speak about our people, including our discussion about problems which need to be addressed. When we speak about our people, we need to remember that the Judge of All is listening, and we should therefore seek to find merit for our people by pointing out our strengths, good deeds, and potential.
The Midrash discusses certain great prophets who were rebuked by Hashem - the Compassionate One - when they spoke in an overly harsh way about the entire People of Israel (Yalkut Shimoni on Isaiah – 406). One example is Moshe, our great teacher, who became very angry at the complaints of the people, and he said to them, “Listen now, O rebels!” (Numbers 20:10). This took place towards the end of their stay in the wilderness, before they entered the Promised Land. According to the Midrash, Moshe’s harsh term for the people, which was spoken out of anger, was a reason why he could no longer lead the people into the Promised Land, for someone on his high level is judged by a higher standard.
Another example is Elijah, the Prophet, who was persecuted by King Ahav and Queen Jezebel. He felt terrible frustration, as the majority of the people did not support him. They had strayed from the path of the Torah, and instead of serving the Compassionate One, they worshiped various nature gods which glorified their own lusts and greed. Elijah fled to the wilderness, where the Divine voice called out to him and asked, “Why are you here, Elijah?” Elijah replied: “I have been exceedingly zealous for the Compassionate One, the God of all the hosts of creation, for the Children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant” (I Kings 19:10). The Compassionate One then revealed to Elijah certain aspects of the Divine ways which hinted to Elijah that he needed to speak in a softer way about his people. After this revelation, the Compassionate One repeated the question, and Elijah gave the same response. The Compassionate One therefore told Elijah, “Annoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel-meholah as a prophet in your stead” (ibid 19:16). The Midrash explains that since Elijah had spoken to the Compassionate One in a harsh way about the entire People of Israel, he was told to appoint another prophet to replace him (Yalkut Shimoni 406).
The Midrash also cites the example of Isaiah, the Prophet. When Isaiah was shown the Divine glory in a Heavenly vision, he felt overwhelmed, and he declared, “Woe is me, for I am doomed: for I am a man of impure lips, and I dwell among a people with impure lips” (Isaiah 6:5). We are then told that an angel flew towards Isaiah, and in his hand was a glowing coal. The angel touched the mouth of Isaiah with the glowing coal and said, “Your iniquity shall be removed and your sin shall be atoned for” (ibid 6:7). What was his sin? The Midrash explains that Isaiah should not have spoken in a derogatory way about his entire people before the Compassionate One by saying, “I dwell among a people with impure lips.”
Yes, there were occasions when Isaiah was told by the Compassionate One to address the corrupt leaders and judges of the nation in harsh terms regarding their idolatry, their persecution of the poor, and their lack of “tzedakah” – the sharing of resources with those in need. Through this rebuke, Isaiah was serving as a messenger of the Compassionate One Who wants the nation to fulfill its potential to serve as a vessel for the Divine light. Isaiah was therefore told to convey the Divine message, “I refine your dross” (Isaiah 1:25), for the suffering of the nation would lead to its purification. This Divine rebuke was really an expression of the Divine love; thus, Isaiah was also told by the Compassionate One to convey the following message of comfort and hope:
“Then I will restore your judges as at first, and your counselors as at the beginning; after that you will be called ‘City of Righteousness, Faithful City.’ Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her through tzedakah.” (Ibid 1:26,27)
When the Compassionate One rebuked Isaiah for speaking in a derogatory way about the entire people, it was in order to remind him that a prophet must never lose his ability to see the good within the people, especially when speaking about them before the Compassionate One. The Midrash adds that Isaiah sough to atone for his derogatory remarks by becoming the prophet who gave more prophecies of comfort to our people than any other prophet.
When a leader, teacher, or activist becomes embittered and is no longer able to see the good within the people, then he or she is no longer able to properly serve the people. We therefore need to speak about our people from a place of love. Our tone of voice and choice of words must express this love, especially now, when we are facing great danger. And like the Prophet Isaiah, we should also bring to our people words of comfort and hope. In this spirit, I will conclude this letter with the most famous of Isaiah’s prophecies of consolation – a Divine reminder that all our suffering will lead to redemption:
“Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. Speak consolingly of Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her period of exile has been completed, that her iniquity has been forgiven; for she has received double for all her sins from the hand of Hashem. A voice calls out in the wilderness, ‘Clear the way of Hashem; make a straight path in the desert, a road for our God.’ Every valley will be raised, and every mountain and hill will be lowered; the crooked will become straight and heights will become valley. The glory of Hashem will be revealed, and all flesh together will see that the mouth of Hashem has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen