Good People, Bad People, and Those in Between

And these are the laws that you should place before them.  (Sefer Shemot 21:1)

Our tendency to classify people as good or evil

We tend to classify people as either good people or as bad people. The good people conduct themselves according to standards that we establish.  If these good people deviate from these standards, it is in minor or excusable ways. The bad people have violated these standards in a way that we cannot overlook or forgive. This classification helps us navigate our social lives.  We have goodwill toward the good people. We want them to be our friends.  We avoid or shun the bad people. After all, they deserve our disdain.  They are the bad people.

The reality of human behavior is more complicated. No one is completely evil or thoroughly righteous. Each of us is a combination of traits. Some of these traits are meritorious and others are less so.  Even those who have serious character flaws and sometimes act despicably, often possess some wonderful distinctive traits. Recognizing the complexity of human beings makes our social interactions and attitudes far more challenging. 

When we recognize the complexity of human character, we realize that most of our animosities are not truly justified and that many of our friendships include an element of self-imposed blindness.  We are blind to the good in the objects of our animosity and to the failings of those we admire.

 Problems with the classification system

One of the results of this classification system is that we struggle to treat people fairly.  We speak poorly of the people we have classified as evil.  We do not feel any responsibility to treat such a person with compassion in his or her time of need.  And if our animosity toward a person involves money, we may not be objective in weighing our respective claims.

If we want to be just and fair individuals, we need to overcome this tendency.  We need to act fairly toward everyone – even toward those we dislike and whom we feel deserve any evil that befalls them.  But how do overcome our innate prejudices and resentments?

Might is to the king Who loves judgment.  You have established equity. Judgment and justice You made for Yaakov. (Tehilim 99:4(

The laws of the Torah “create” conflicts

Parshat Mishpatim deals primarily with the laws that govern the relationship between an individual and his or her fellow individual. Included are regulations regarding loans and admonitions to treat the less fortunate with compassion and sensitivity.  Many of these laws concern financial obligations between individuals and liabilities for theft and damages.

In its opening comments of the parasha, Midrash Rabbah quotes the above passage and makes the following observation:  You, Hashem, established just behaviors for Your beloved. Through the laws that You gave to them they create conflicts with one another.  They come for judgment and they make peace. 

The comment of the midrash is difficult to understand. It seems to say that we create conflicts through the laws that Hashem gave to us in the Torah. This sounds like a very critical description of our behavior.  Is the midrash suggesting that we take advantage of the laws of the Torah in order to harass others? Is the message of the midrash that we use the laws of the Torah to concoct trivial or specious claims against one another?  If this is the message, then the closing statement of the midrash contradicts this assessment.  The closing statement is that we subject our conflicts to judgment and then reunite in peace.  People who present invented or exaggerated accusations do not place their conflict before a judge, and then after his ruling, come together in peace. How can we understand the comments of the midrash?

The Torah and the Noahide court systems

Before addressing this issue, let us consider another question.  Hashem gave the Jewish people His Torah.  He also gave a set of laws to humanity. These are seven general commandments that He gave to the descendants of Noach. These two sets of laws have many shared features but they also differ in some respects. One of their shared features is that both require the establishment of a court system. However, the systems differ.  The court system required by the Torah is extensive. In the Land of Israel, we are required to establish courts in every district and in every city. The commandment given to the descendants of Noach requires that courts be established only in every district but not in every city. 

Why are the Jewish people commanded to create a more extensive court system than required of other nations?  Is this because we are more quarrelsome and litigious?  Are we more unethical than the rest of humanity and therefore, more prone to conflicts? 

The court system reflects the Torah’s focus on implementing justice

The answer is that we are expected to care deeply about justice.  When we come into a conflict with another person, we are expected to seek a fair and just resolution and not merely prevail by wearing down or overpowering one's opponent. 

In order to understand this, let's compare the ideal promoted by the Torah with everyday experience in our contemporary society.  If I feel my mobile provider has overcharged me, what is my recourse?  I can call the provider and seek resolution. I will need to be prepared to confront endless automated menus, none of which include the option I am seeking.  If I somehow defeat this system and manage to speak with an actual human being, it will not be the person who can help me. Probably, the second person to whom I am passed on will also not be able to help me.  He will offer to place me on hold and then connect me with the person who can be helpful. After waiting on hold for ten minutes, I will be cut off.  Now, I can decide whether I want to start over.  In the end, I may decide to drop the entire issue. First of all, maybe I am wrong and there is a reason for the unexplained higher charge.  And even if I have been overcharged, is correcting the overcharge worth the time it will take? 

Consider this story.  How was my conflict with my carrier resolved?  The resolution did not reflect justice. I was merely subdued by the obstacles I encountered.  This is a trivial example, but it illustrates how so many conflicts are resolved in our society.  Justice is replaced by surrender of one's claim.

The Torah intends to communicate that winning is not as important as acting justly.  Conflicts should be resolved ethically and not through one party imposing a resolution on the other.  The greater the drive for justice, the more courts needed by society.  The Torah requires an extensive court system because it expects us to resolve conflicts justly rather than through the stronger party imposing his position upon the weaker party. 

Acting with justice even in confronting perceived enemies

Now, we can return to the comments of the midrash.  The midrash states that the laws that Hashem gave us create conflicts.  This is absolutely true.  The Torah provided us with an extensive set of laws that regulates our interpersonal and business interactions.  It gave us these laws because we are to be committed to justice.  These laws are to be the basis for our conflicts. This means that we look to the laws to inform our behaviors toward one another, to define our respective rights, and to regulate our interactions.  Our conflicts are to be the product of our desire to realize the justice embodied in these laws and not by the desire to vanquish those we oppose. If our conflicts are the result of our desire to adhere to the justice to which these laws give expression, then we will place our views before the court of judgment; we will accept the decision, and we will depart friends.  In other words, the midrash does not mean that the laws of the Torah create conflicts.  It means that these laws are to be the basis of our conflicts.  If our conflicts are based upon and guided by these laws then justice will prevail and peace will be restored. 

 Learning to treat everyone fairly and to judge others equitably

Let us now return to our original question.  How do we overcome the prejudices that we have toward one another and treat each other fairly?  The preceding discussion provides the Torah’s response. We must be strict with ourselves in our observance of the laws regulating our social and commercial interactions.  We must impose these laws upon ourselves equally, whether dealing with a friend or a perceived adversary.  We must be as scrupulous in paying a stranger for his services as in paying a friend. And even if we have a falling-out with an individual, we must be scrupulous in our treatment of that person. 

There is a personal reward that the individual accrues by imposing upon oneself this expectation.  In time, it becomes much more difficult to classify people as good or evil.  Our actions impact our thinking and feelings.  We treat people fairly and our perspective on people begins to mature.  We force ourselves to treat others with objectivity and, hopefully, we begin to assess other objectively.  The categorization of people into good and bad is replaced by an appreciation of the complexity of the human character and recognition of the good in every person.