Among the various rulings given by Moses to the children of Israel, in Deut. 16 he directs the Israelites to appoint for themselves judges and magistrates for each tribe and in every city. In this radical departure from other civilizations of the time, the Bible instructs us that it is the responsibility of the people to deliberate carefully and choose wisely who among them could be a worthy leader in order to make sure that the wheels of justice in the land are set in proper motion. Israelites have the responsibility to choose and ensure for themselves godly and righteous leadership.
Scripture teaches that the people must appoint judiciaries who can demonstrate sound moral character and who are known to be able to “judge the people fairly.” Yet, surprisingly, the caution in verse 19, “you shall not pervert judgement,” is directed at the people who will choose these officials, and not to the leaders themselves. Surely it’s the judges who need to be held accountable for their judgements. Why is this caution to “not pervert judgement” directed at the people?
God holds accountable both the people who appoint, and the ones who are appointed, to ensure there is justice in the land. Those who fail to appoint proper leadership are held just as responsible for the bad governance as the officials they have appointed to serve.
In modern terms, the uncomfortable truth is that we, the voters, are just as responsible as our elected leaders are for their actions. In our current explosive political climate, we must understand that we, too, are responsible in part for the actions of our politicians, their politics and policies. This sobering biblical truth ought to cause us all to take a moment to reflect deeply on who we support, and why.
The final verse of Chapter 16 admonishes the Israelites not to plant an idolatrous tree or Asherah pole. What does an idolatrous tree have to do with the warning to be careful not to appoint corrupt judges? Rav Nachman teaches that a corrupt judge is one who is easily influenced by public opinion, just as a tree bends and sways to the whim of the wind. And, according to the teachings of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, though it may look much like all others from the outside, the corrupt judge, like the idolatrous tree, is rotten to its core.
We can’t always see the immorality, injustice or rottenness from the exterior of the person, nor from the beautiful leaves of the tree. But, over time, it will become evident. If we the people do not choose wisely, we also will be held accountable and bear the results of our choices.