Uriah, and Other Biblical Figures

President Obama:

THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. Today I accepted General Stanley McChrystal’s resignation as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. I did so with considerable regret, but also with certainty that it is the right thing for our mission in Afghanistan, for our military, and for our country. …

I don’t make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal, as we are in full agreement about our strategy. Nor do I make this decision out of any sense of personal insult. Stan McChrystal has always shown great courtesy and carried out my orders faithfully. I’ve got great admiration for him and for his long record of service in uniform. …

The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

General McChrystal was fired for the disrespect he displayed toward the commander in chief (and other high-level administration officials) in Michael Hastings’s notorious Rolling Stones profile of him:

Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn’t go much better. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his [expletive] war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”

In Biblical times, even much milder disrespect displayed by a soldier toward his sovereign would have cost him his life, not merely his job. Gemara:

והא דתני האומר לשלוחו צא הרוג את הנפש הוא חייב ושולחיו פטור שמאי הזקן אומר משום חגי הנביא שולחיו חייב שנא’ אותו הרגת בחרב בני עמון

מאי טעמיה דשמאי הזקן …

ואיבעית אימא שאני התם דגלי רחמנא אותו הרגת בחרב בני עמון

ואידך הרי לך כחרב בני עמון מה חרב בני עמון אין אתה נענש עליו אף אוריה החתי אי אתה נענש עליו מאי טעמא מורד במלכות הוה דקאמר ליה ואדוני יואב וכל עבדי אדוני על פני השדה חונים1


ואדוני יואב. זהו מרד שקראו אדון בפני המלך:2


מורד במלכות הוה דקאמר ליה ואדוני יואב כו’. פי’ בקונטרס דמורד היה מהא דקאמר אדוני יואב בפני המלך דוד ולא נהירא שהרי יואב לא היה מורד במלכות ואומר רבינו מאיר אביו של ר”ת מה שאמר לו דוד שילך לביתו לאכול ולשתות והוא מיאן בדבר כדכתיב כל עבדי אדוני על פני השדה חונים ואני אבא אל ביתי לאכול וגו’ בתמיה ולא היה לו לסרב וי”מ דהמרד היה שהקדים לומר אדוני יואב קודם המלך דוד:3

Here’s Rudyard Kipling’s characteristically simple, yet (or perhaps therefore) brilliant and powerful – and deadly earnest – The Story of Uriah:

The Story of Uriah

“Now there were two men in one city;
the one rich, and the other poor.”

Jack Barrett went to Quetta
Because they told him to.
He left his wife at Simla
On three-fourths his monthly screw.
Jack Barrett died at Quetta
Ere the next month’s pay he drew.

Jack Barrett went to Quetta.
He didn’t understand
The reason of his transfer
From the pleasant mountain-land.
The season was September,
And it killed him out of hand.

Jack Barrett went to Quetta
And there gave up the ghost,
Attempting two men’s duty
In that very healthy post;
And Mrs. Barrett mourned for him
Five lively months at most.

Jack Barrett’s bones at Quetta
Enjoy profound repose;
But I shouldn’t be astonished
If now his spirit knows
The reason of his transfer
From the Himalayan snows.

And, when the Last Great Bugle Call
Adown the Hurnai throbs,
And the last grim joke is entered
In the big black Book of Jobs.
And Quetta graveyards give again
Their victims to the air,
I shouldn’t like to be the man
Who sent Jack Barrett there.

Publication details and some notes, including this:

According to Kay Robinson, the poem was a thinly disguised version of a topical scandal and ‘those who had known the real “Jack Barrett”, good fellow that he was, and the vile superior and faithless wife who sent him “on duty” to his death, felt the heat of the spirit which inspired Kipling’s verse in a way that gave those few lines an imperishable force’.

I think that this misses the point; Kipling’s genius makes even those who have not known the figures who inspired the poem feel the “imperishable force” of his moral outrage!

Some of Kipling’s most powerful poetry draws on Biblical narrative and language for its force; see our discussion of his devastating Gehazi, and see also his Delilah (notes), with its Biblical allusion that most will probably easily recognize, his Rimmon (notes), with its somewhat less immediately obvious one, and his En-Dor, which he helpfully prefaces with the relevant citation.

One of my favorite Kipling poems, heavily laden with majestic Biblical imagery, is his haunting and moving, deeply religious caution agains hubris, Recessional:


GOD of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine
Lord God of Hosts be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

See these notes for many of the Biblical references (regarding Nineveh, see here); one that is not mentioned in the notes is the allusion in the last stanza to Psalms:

שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת, לִשְׁלֹמֹה:
אִם-יְקוָק, לֹא-יִבְנֶה בַיִת– שָׁוְא עָמְלוּ בוֹנָיו בּוֹ;
אִם-יְקוָק לֹא-יִשְׁמָר-עִיר, שָׁוְא שָׁקַד שׁוֹמֵר.4

As George Orwell puts it, with his inimitable style:

Much of Kipling’s phraseology is taken from the Bible, and no doubt in the second stanza he had in mind the text from Psalm CXXVII: ‘Except the lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it; except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’ It is not a text that makes much impression on the post-Hitler mind. No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force. There is no ‘Law’, there is only power. I am not saying that that is a true belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually hold. Those who pretend otherwise are either intellectual cowards, or power-worshippers under a thin disguise, or have simply not caught up with the age they are living in. Kipling’s outlook is prefascist. He still believes that pride comes before a fall and that the gods punish hubris. He does not foresee the tank, the bombing plane, the radio and the secret police, or their psychological results.

The essay from which the above is taken defends Kipling from the charge of fascism, although Orwell does insist that “Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.”:

It was a pity that Mr. Eliot should be so much on the defensive in the long essay with which he prefaces this selection of Kipling’s poetry, but it was not to be avoided, because before one can even speak about Kipling one has to clear away a legend that has been created by two sets of people who have not read his works. Kipling is in the peculiar position of having been a byword for fifty years. During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there. Mr. Eliot never satisfactorily explains this fact, because in answering the shallow and familiar charge that Kipling is a ‘Fascist’, he falls into the opposite error of defending him where he is not defensible. It is no use pretending that Kipling’s view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person. It is no use claiming, for instance, that when Kipling describes a British soldier beating a ‘nigger’ with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the slightest sign anywhere in Kipling’s work that he disapproves of that kind of conduct — on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.

And yet the ‘Fascist’ charge has to be answered, because the first clue to any understanding of Kipling, morally or politically, is the fact that he was not a Fascist. He was further from being one than the most humane or the most ‘progressive’ person is able to be nowadays. An interesting instance of the way in which quotations are parroted to and fro without any attempt to look up their context or discover their meaning is the line from ‘Recessional’, ‘Lesser breeds without the Law’. This line is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles. It is assumed as a matter of course that the ‘lesser breeds’ are ‘natives’, and a mental picture is called up of some pukka sahib in a pith helmet kicking a coolie. In its context the sense of the line is almost the exact opposite of this. The phrase ‘lesser breeds’ refers almost certainly to the Germans, and especially the pan-German writers, who are ‘without the Law’ in the sense of being lawless, not in the sense of being powerless. The whole poem, conventionally thought of as an orgy of boasting, is a denunciation of power politics, British as well as German. Two stanzas are worth quoting (I am quoting this as politics, not as poetry): [He then cites part of the poem, and follows with the paragraph earlier quoted.]

Another surpassingly beautiful instance of Kipling in his stirring, majestic, Biblical mode is another favorite of mine, Hymn Before Action:

THE EARTH is full of anger,
The seas are dark with wrath,
The Nations in their harness
Go up against our path:
Ere yet we loose the legions—
Ere yet we draw the blade,
Jehovah of the Thunders,
Lord God of Battles, aid!

High lust and froward bearing,
Proud heart, rebellious brow—
Deaf ear and soul uncaring,
We seek Thy mercy now!
The sinner that forswore Thee,
The fool that passed Thee by,
Our times are known before Thee—
Lord, grant us strength to die!

For those who kneel beside us
At altars not Thine own,
Who lack the lights that guide us,
Lord, let their faith atone.
If wrong we did to call them,
By honour bound they came;
Let not Thy Wrath befall them,
But deal to us the blame.

From panic, pride, and terror,
Revenge that knows no rein,
Light haste and lawless error,
Protect us yet again.
Cloak Thou our undeserving,
Make firm the shuddering breath,
In silence and unswerving
To taste Thy lesser death!

Ah, Mary pierced with sorrow,
Remember, reach and save
The soul that comes to-morrow
Before the God that gave!
Since each was born of woman,
For each at utter need—
True comrade and true foeman—
Madonna, intercede!

E’en now their vanguard gathers,
E’en now we face the fray—
As Thou didst help our fathers,
Help Thou our host to-day!
Fulfilled of signs and wonders,
In life, in death made clear—
Jehovah of the Thunders,
Lord God of Battles, hear!

We close with one of Kipling’s less-known poems, the stunningly powerful, profoundly grim, and brilliantly haunting A Death-Bed. This is what he thought of Fascism:

“THIS is the State above the Law.
The State exists for the State alone.”
[This is a gland at the back of the jaw,
And an answering lump by the collar-bone.]

Some die shouting in gas or fire;
Some die silent, by shell and shot.
Some die desperate, caught on the wire;
Some die suddenly. This will not.

“Regis suprema voluntas Lex”
[It will follow the regular course of—throats.]
Some die pinned by the broken decks,
Some die sobbing between the boats.

Some die eloquent, pressed to death
By the sliding trench as their friends can hear.
Some die wholly in half a breath.
Some—give trouble for half a year.

“There is neither Evil nor Good in life
Except as the needs of the State ordain.”
[Since it is rather too late for the knife,
All we can do is to mask the pain.]

Some die saintly in faith and hope—
One died thus in a prison-yard—
Some die broken by rape or the rope;
Some die easily. This dies hard.

“I will dash to pieces who bar my way.
Woe to the traitor! Woe to the weak!”
[Let him write what he wishes to say.
It tires him out if he tries to speak.]

Some die quietly. Some abound
In loud self-pity. Others spread
Bad morale through the cots around . . .
This is a type that is better dead.

“The war was forced on me by my foes.
All that I sought was the right to live.”
[Don’t be afraid of a triple dose;
The pain will neutralize half we give.

Here are the needles. See that he dies
While the effects of the drug endure. . . .
What is the question he asks with his eyes?—
Yes, All-Highest, to God, be sure.]

  1. קידושין מג. – קשר []
  2. רש”י שם ד”ה ואדוני יואב []
  3. תוספות שם ד”ה מורד במלכות הוא []
  4. תהלים קכז:א – קשר []

Little Guys, Big Guys and the Law

Shortly before President Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, Politico published this excoriation of the “pro-business tilt” of Chief Justice John G. Roberts and his Court by Nan Aron, founder and president of Alliance For Justice:

As chief justice, John Roberts has shown a strong pro-business tilt. On the eve of the appointment of a replacement for Justice John Paul Stevens, the stakes have never been clearer.

The Roberts court has repeatedly placed corporate interests first and the rights of individuals second, as shown by an in-depth analysis that we just completed, “Unprecedented Injustice: The Political Agenda of the Roberts Court.” In many cases, this court has disregarded precedents and long-held principles to do so.

For those who care about unchecked corporate power, personal freedoms and respect for judicial precedent, the picture revealed by our data isn’t pretty. The record shows that the Roberts court consistently protects the powerful at the expense of the rest of us.

In the 2006-07 term, for example, the Roberts court heard 30 business-related cases and at least 22 — or 73 percent — were decided in favor of large corporations.

A litany of cases heard by the Roberts court, and often decided by 5-4 votes, demonstrates this rightward, pro-Big Business tilt — an approach that will certainly continue, even after a replacement for Stevens has been seated.

According to our analysis, these cases include:

  • A consumer seriously injured by a defective medical device cannot sue the manufacturer if the product was approved by federal government regulators — even if the company knew the product was dangerous.
  • Exxon was allowed to escape full financial liability for the damage done to communities and the environment by the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
  • Two decisions that left many waterways no longer protected by the Clean Water Act, resulting in 1,500 major pollution investigations being halted and a 50 percent reduction in EPA actions against water polluters.
  • Corporations have the same constitutional right to free speech as ordinary citizens, which opened the floodgates of unlimited corporate spending in federal elections.
  • A woman paid less than her male peers for 20 years had no right to bring a lawsuit for equal pay because she failed to file the suit within 180 days of the first instance of discrimination — though she had no way of learning about the discrimination until years later.

This critique is egregiously wrongheaded, for although Aron attempts to give it the veneer of scientific objectivity by referring importantly to her “data”, her primary objection seems to be that she reprehends the policy consequences of numerous decisions of the Court; the absence of substantial legal analysis based upon neutral principles of law is remarkable, and appalling. The only such argument that she presents is the indubitable fact that the “court has disregarded precedents and long-held principles”, but all courts do so, at least occasionally; Aron makes no effort to demonstrate that the Roberts court has done so unusually often. [Note that I take no position on the basic question of whether the Roberts court has, indeed, been unusually bold about overturning precedent; I merely note that Aron does not make any serious effort to demonstrate that that is the case.]

Aron’s language in the report itself is perhaps even more vehement:

When Associate Justice John Paul Stevens retires this summer, the Supreme Court will lose its most powerful spokesperson for personal freedoms, separation of powers, and the rule of law. Justice Stevens has been a staunch protector of the rights of ordinary Americans faced with unchecked corporate and government interests. Despite his perceived role on the Court as the ‘Chief Liberal Justice,’ Justice Stevens continues to consider himself a “judicial conservative”: he thinks he only appears liberal because he has been surrounded by ideologically extreme right-wing justices. Indeed, Justice Stevens’s opinions stand out as a bulwark against the Court’s increasingly sharp turn to the right. Rather than keep faith with core American values, a slim majority on the Supreme Court has abandoned principles of fundamental fairness and steadily eroded, if not outright overturned, long-standing constitutional doctrine.

In Citizens United, the Court overturned a century of precedent to give corporations the First Amendment rights previously accorded only to real people to spend money to influence elections, thereby jeopardizing the integrity of our political system. Unfortunately, Citizens United is just the latest Supreme Court decision that puts corporate and special interests ahead of everyday Americans. From antitrust regulations to environmental protections to women’s rights to First Amendment rights, the Roberts Court has not been shy in rewriting decades of law to protect big business at the expense of everyday Americans. A review of recent cases shows the conservative justices’ disregard for precedent, eagerness to roll back personal freedoms, and willingness to ignore the promises that Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito made at their Senate confirmation hearings to respect precedent, neutrally uphold the Constitution, and fairly apply the law to everyone.

So in addition to breaking their promise to “respect precedent”, Roberts and his fellow conservatives, in particular his fellow Bush appointee Justice Samuel Alito, stand accused of “[abandoning] principles of fundamental fairness” and of breaking their promises to “neutrally uphold the Constitution, and fairly apply the law to everyone”, but once again, Aron provides not a hint of an argument for any unfairness or tendentiousness in their decisions, and the basis of her outrage seems merely to be the thwarting of her policy preferences.

Aron tallies the number of decisions in which Roberts and his Court have sided with big business against smaller opponents, and she seems to think that the mere fact that business has won more often than not is problematic. But this is profoundly wrong; as Roberts himself explained in his confirmation hearing (h/t: James Taranto, via Professor Randy E. Barnett), a judge must decide according to the law, without regard for the identity of the litigants:

ROBERTS: I had someone ask me in this process — I don’t remember who it was, but somebody asked me, you know, “Are you going to be on the side of the little guy?”

And you obviously want to give an immediate answer, but, as you reflect on it, if the Constitution says that the little guy should win, the little guy’s going to win in court before me. But if the Constitution says that the big guy should win, well, then the big guy’s going to win, because my obligation is to the Constitution. That’s the oath.

The oath that a judge takes is not that, “I’ll look out for particular interests, I’ll be on the side of particular interests.” The oath is to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States. And that’s what I would do.

DURBIN: Would you at least concede that you would take into consideration that in our system of justice the race goes to the swift, and the swift are those with the resources, the money, the lawyers, the power in the system? And that many times the powerless, the person who has struggled and clawed their way to your courtroom, went through a wall of adversity which the power never had to face? Is that part of your calculation?

ROBERTS: Absolutely. And it’s, again, what’s carved above the doors to the Supreme Court: “Equal justice under law.” And the judicial oath talks about doing justice without regard to persons, to rich and to poor. And that, of course, is critically important.

You do have to appreciate that there are going to be interests who, for one reason or another, don’t have the same resources as people on the other side.

The idea is not to give the case to the side with the best resources, the side with the best lawyers, the side with the most opportunity to prepare it and present it. It is to decide the case according to the law and according to the Constitution.

And as case after case in the Supreme Court shows, that’s often the prisoner who’s sitting in his cell and writes his petition out longhand.

ROBERTS: Sometimes the Constitution is on that person’s side and not on the side of the corporation with the fancy printed brief.

But the judge’s obligation is to appreciate that the rule of law requires that both of those be treated equally under the law.

We owe the Lord our thanks that this man is the Chief Justice of our great מדינה של חסד (assuming, of course, that he has actually been, and will continue to be, faithful to these sentiments). [These Senate hearings for candidates for the Supreme Court of the United States are just chock-full of interesting exchanges; see our discussion of an excerpt from the Sotomayor hearing.]

Incidentally, whenever I think of the verse in Koheles alluded to by Senator Durbin, I am reminded of this brilliant passage from George Orwell’s famous essay Politics and the English Language, first pointed out to me years ago by my mother:

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. … It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations — race, battle, bread — dissolve into the vague phrases “success or failure in competitive activities.” This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing — no one capable of using phrases like “objective considerations of contemporary phenomena” — would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.

Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.

To be perfectly honest, I have never fully accepted Orwell’s point here. I really don’t know that his reformulation of the verse from Koheles into precise albeit colorless prose is all that egregious. While vividness, clarity and originality are certainly very desirable qualities, so are precision and accuracy. While there are doubtless situations where the former qualities are more important, there are also those in which the latter are key.

Returning to Roberts’s insistence that the judge’s fealty must be to the law, and not to the “little guy”, we note that of course, the Torah says exactly this, twice, succinctly and seemingly unequivocally:

ודל לא תהדר בריבו:1

לא תעשו עול במשפט לא תשא פני דל ולא תהדר פני גדול בצדק תשפוט עמיתך:2

But is the issue really that clear-cut? Dr. Michael Vigoda, a Mishpat Ha’Ivri scholar at the Israeli Ministry of Justice, has argued3 that invoking a defendant’s destitution as grounds for leniency is not always illegitimate.

He begins by citing two Israeli court decisions that reject a defendant’s destitution as a basis for a reduction in a mandated fine, explicitly adducing the verse ודל לא תהדר בריבו in support:

בפסק דין שניתן בעת האחרונה בבית המשפט המחוזי תל-אביב-יפו, בדונו בעבֵרה על פקודת התעבורה שעונשה ברֵרת קנס, נקבע שמצבו הכלכלי הדחוק של הנאשם אינו יכול לשמש עילה להפחתת הקנס, אף שנאמר בסעיף 224 לחוק סדר הדין הפלילי [נוסח משולב], התשמ”ב – 1982:

הורשע בבית המשפט על העבירה ונגזר דינו לקנס, לא יפחת הקנס מהסכום הנקוב בהזמנה אלא אם ראה בית המשפט נסיבות מיוחדות המצדיקות הפחתתו.

לדעת בית המשפט, אף אילו הוכח שהנאשם עני, הדבר אינו בגדר “נסיבות מיוחדות המצדיקות” את הפחתת הקנס. אחד הנימוקים שנתן בית המשפט לקוח מפרשת השבוע שלנו, פרשת משפטים, וזה לשונו:

העובדה שעבריין החניה הינו סטודנט אינה יכולה לשמש נימוק מספיק להפחתת הקנס המקורי… וכבר מצינו במקורותינו ככתוב: “ודל לא תהדר בריבו”. גם אדם שמקורותיו דלים אין הדבר יכול לשמש חסינות לביצוע עבירות כלשהן, לרבות עבירות חניה.

פסוק זה בא גם בפסק דין אחר שעניינו ענישת עברייני מס:

הזהרתי את עצמי שאל לו לבית דין לחוס על מי שנתחייב קנס, שנאמר: “ולא תחוס עינך” (דברים יט, כא) ואין מרחמים על הדל, שנאמר: “ודל לא תהדר בריבו” (שמות כג, ג).

Dr. Vigoda wonders if the matter is really quite this simple:

ושאלה היא אם פרשנות זו של הפסוק “ודל לא תהדר בריבו” עולה בקנה אחד עם מקורות המשפט העברי, למן מפרשי המקרא ועד פוסקי ההלכה, או שמא עולה מהם גישה שונה.

He proceeds with a detailed and informative discussion on the parameters of the Halachic concept of לפנים משורת הדין, in the course of which he excerpts a remarkable and provocative letter (Vigoda himself acknowledges that it contains “דברים מפתיעים”) of Rav Kook, which he credits Professor Nahum Rakover, a fellow Mishpat Ha’Ivri expert, for bringing to his attention:

ומדת הרחמים היא משמשת ביחוד אצל קובעי החוקים ומתקני תקנות לדורות… ואפילו בשופטים פרטיים, גם כן אין זה כלל גמור [והוא מביא ראיה מסיפור הסבלים]… וגם עיקר של לפנים משורת הדין גם הוא נכנס בכלל הדין לפעמים, “ולא חרבה ירושלים אלא שהעמידו דיניהם על דין תורה, ולא עשו לפנים משורת הדין” (בבא מציעא ל ע”ב). ומכל זה מוכרחים לומר שהכתוב, שאומר “ודל לא תהדר בריבו”, הוא נאמר דוקא בזמן שהדיין אינו מתחשב כלל עם שורת הדין, אלא שהוא פוסק את המשפט רק מפני מדת הרחמים על הדל, אבל בזמן שיש משקל לזה גם כן מצד צורת המשפט ויסודי הדין, יש רשות לדיין לפעמים לצרף לזה גם מדת הרחמים והחמלה על האומללים והעובדים הנדכאים.

Vigoda infers from this and other sources that:

אם נחזור לתחילת הדברים, נוכל לקבוע שלפי גישה זו, דרישת המקרא, “ודל לא תהדר בריבו”, אינה חוסמת בפני הדיין את הדרך להתחשב במצבו הקשה של בעל הדין.

His conclusion:

סיכומו של דבר, נראה שלא נכון להסתמך על הפסוק “ודל לא תהדר בריבו” להצדקת אי-הפחתת עונש הקנס המושת על אדם עני.

The analysis that began with references to two Israeli court decisions did not go unnoticed, and was subsequently mentioned in a third case. The defendant had been guilty of perpetrating a serious assault, but had pleaded with the judge to not convict him, as a conviction itself, independent of the consequent punishment, would be a severe blow to him. The judge, however, felt unable to acquit:

הנאשם חושש מאוד לעתידו בתחום התעסוקתי, וביקש להימנע מהרשעתו.

אכן, התרשמתי מן הנאשם לחיוב במובן זה שהוא משקיע מחשבה ומאמץ בתחום התעסוקתי, על רקע אישי ומשפחתי מורכב שגדל בו. אני מקווה שההרשעה לא תעמוד לו לרועץ בשקידתו לפרנסתו. אך להימנע מהרשעה, לא אוּכל.

לחובת הנאשם עבר פלילי; תסקיר שירות המבחן בעניינו איננו שלילי, אך גם לא חיובי; הנאשם עודנו מתקשה בנטילת אחריות על מעשה-העבירה שביצע; תוצאות המעשה – החבלה החמורה באפּו של רונן אמזלג, והטיפולים הרפואיים שבעקבותיה – הינן קשות; גם לא הוּכח קשר ממשי בין ההרשעה בתיק זה כשלעצמה, לפגיעה עתידית בנאשם.

בהצטבר כל השיקולים הללו, לא ראיתי הצדקה להימנע מהרשעה.

On the other hand, the judge conceded that there were grounds for leniency in the sentencing, since the defendant had suffered, from his childhood, from “מחסכים הוריים וחינוכיים”, and that it was unsurprising that he had degenerated into criminality. On the contrary, he was worthy of a certain amount of respect for not having fallen farther!

עם זאת, בהיותי מוּדע לכך שלהרשעה יש השלכה קשה על הנאשם, הרשעה אשר בעיניו הינה ‘עונש’ חמור בפני עצמו, החלטתי לגזור עונש מתון באופן יחסי.

מתסקיר שירות המבחן עולה תמונה אישית ומשפחתית מורכבת. למעשה עוד מנעוריו סבל הנאשם מחסכים הוריים וחינוכיים. בנסיבות בהן גדל, אין תימה בדבר שנגרר מעת לעת אל השוליים, אל מעבר לסף העבריינות. אדרבא, ראוי הנאשם למידה של הערכה על כך שלא הידרדר עוד. הרקע כמתואר בתסקיר מצדיק לנקוט עם הנאשם מידה הגונה של רחמים, והתחשבות בגזירת עונשו.

The prosecution nevertheless asked for a harsh sentence:

עמדתה העונשית של המאשימה לא השתנתה חרף העובדה כי התסקיר איננו חיובי, וב”כ המאשימה מבקש לגזור על הנאשם של”צ משמעותי, מאסר-על-תנאי, קנס ופיצוי.

Whereas the defendant’s lawyer invoked the aformentioned letter of Rav Kook:

ב”כ הנאשם ביקש ליתן משקל מכריע לנסיבות האישיות, ולעניין זה ציטט מדבריו של הרב אברהם יצחק הכהן קוק זצ”ל: … [מתוך איגרת שפורסמה בספר הזכרון לאברהם שפיגלמן, ירושלים (תשל”ט) 67, וכמצוטט במאמרו של מ’ ויגודה בגיליון 62 של פרשת השבוע “ודל לא תהדר בריבו”, פרשת משפטים, תשס”ב, בהוצאת המחלקה למשפט עברי במשרד המשפטים, והמרכז להוראת המשפט העברי ולימודו במכללת “שערי משפט”].

The judge concluded that he took everyone’s perspective into account, and that compassion did indeed play a role in his ultimate decision:

שקלתי, איפוא, את דברי ב”כ המאשימה, ב”כ הנאשם והנאשם עצמו; משקל לא מבוטל, נתתי גם למידת הרחמים, והחלטתי לגזור על הנאשם עונשים כדלקמן:

[For the actual details of his verdict, see the decision.]

One of Vigoda’s primary Talmudic sources for the legitimacy of a departure from strict Din in favor of a poor litigant is the famous, beautiful account of Rabbah Bar Bar (Hanan) [Hanah, or alternatively, Huna] and his porters:

רבה בר בר (חנן) [צ”ל חנה, ויש גורסים הונא, עיין מסורת הש”ס] תברו ליה הני שקולאי חביתא דחמרא שקל לגלימייהו אתו אמרו לרב אמר ליה הב להו גלימייהו אמר ליה דינא הכי אמר ליה אין למען תלך בדרך טובים

יהיב להו גלימייהו אמרו ליה עניי אנן וטרחינן כולא יומא וכפינן ולית לן מידי אמר ליה זיל הב אגרייהו אמר ליה דינא הכי אמר ליה אין וארחות צדיקים תשמור:4

A noteworthy application of the principle of this Gemara, along with some of Vigoda’s other sources occurs in a lengthy and intricate analysis of Rav Moshe Teitelbaum (the first, the author of Yismah Moshe), of a complicated case involving a party to an engagement contract who had failed to to make a stipulated dowry payment on time. At the end of Rav Teitelbaum’s discussion of the relevant technical Halachic factors, which he concludes by ruling that at least under certain circumstances, the unsatisfied party has the right to withdraw from the engagement, he writes as follows:

כן הוא מעיקר הדין ברור כשמש לדעתי בס”ד. אך הואיל דחזיתיה להשואל המופלג הנ”ל דאם ירצה להשליש בטחונות אין דעתו לחזור אם יסלק עכשיו וגם כפי הנהוג שאנו רואין הוא אף שמתנין אין מקפידין אם עבר ואיחר הזמן ואין הקשר מתבטל משום זה והוא דבר תמוה בעיני המון לבטל קשר השידוך משום איחור זמן הסילוק אם עומד וצווח שרוצה לסלק עכשיו במילואו וכל שכן לחייבו שבועה לפטור מהקנס ושלא להחזיר המתנות

ובפרט בן תורה וירא שמים לא נאה לו לעשות כן ובכגון זה אמרו רז”ל לא חרבה ירושלים כו’ ועיין במסכת בבא מציעא דף פ”ג ע”א בגמרא שם רבה בר בר חנן תברו ליה הני שקולאי כו’ מבואר להדיא מזה דכופין על לפנים משורת הדין לאדם חשוב ובמקום שהוא ראוי ועיין ברש”י דיבור המתחיל שקולאי כו’ עיי”ש וע”ש בגמרא אמר ליה דינא הכי אמר ליה אין למען תלך בדרך טובים עיין רש”י בדרך טובים היינו לפנים משורת הדין ולכאורה קשה דהא למען תלך כו’ הוא רק לפנים משורת הדין כמו שכתב רש”י ואם כן האיך השיב לו אין דמשמע דדינא קאמר והרי זה סתירה מיניה וביה וכן קשה עוד להלן במה דאמר ליה זיל הב אגרייהו אמר ליה דינא הכי אמר ליה אין וארחות צדיקים תשמור קשה גם כן כנ”ל ועל כרחך צריך לומר לפנים משורת הדין באדם חשוב ובמקום שהוא ראוי הוי דין ממש5

[Rav Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal has an excellent and important responsum6 on the topic of לפנים משורת הדין, in which he cites the comments of numerous Aharonim, including Rav Teitelbaum, in explanation of our Gemara. A proper discussion of the responsum is beyond the scope of this post; I hope to give it the attention it deserves in a future post, בג”ה.]

In the course of his analysis, Vigoda discusses the dispute among the Poskim over whether Beis Din may compel a litigant to act לפנים משורת הדין7:

ואכן גישת חכמי אשכנז היא שהדיין רשאי לכפות פסק דין לפנים משורת הדין. וכך פוסק ה”מרדכי” בשמם של גדולי פוסקי אשכנז כשהוא מסתמך על סוגיית הסבלים …

חכמי ספרד חולקים על גישת חכמי אשכנז, והם סוברים שהדיין אינו רשאי לכפות פסק דין לפנים משורת הדין. לדידם, הדרישה לנהוג לפנים משורת הדין אינה מכוונת כלפי השופטים, שהם אמונים על הדין, ו”אין מרחמין בדין”, אלא כלפי כל יחיד ויחיד, כדבריו המאלפים של רב סעדיה גאון:

ואולם מה שקראו בשם קדמוניהם “דרך טובים ואורחות צדיקים”, הרי חובה שילכו (הבריות) אחרי זה, אלא שזאת חובה על הבעלים [=המתדיינים], לא על הדיין. אכן הדיין לא יוסיף בדינו ולא יגרע ולא יעַול, שלא יעַות למאמרו: “לא תעשו עָול במשפט, לא תשא פני דל”.8

Vigoda seems to imply that Rav Saadia follows the approach of the “Spanish sages” that Beis Din may not compel the litigant to act לפנים משורת הדין, but this is disputed by the authors of the Halachah Pesukah:

ופירוש הדבר [של דברי רב סעדיה הנ”ל], שבית דין צריך לפסוק לפי הדין, ורק יש להוסיף לבעל דין שמצד לפנים משורת הדין יש לו לשלם. אבל בנוגע למחלוקת הראשונים, אם כופין לעשות לפנם משורת הדין, … אינו מוכח מכאן מה שיטת רב סעדיה גאון בזה, שאפשר שמכיון שעל בעל דין מוטל החוב לעשות לפנים משורת הדין – בית דין כופין אותו, כמו שכופין על כל מצוות, אלא שעיקר פסק הדין צריך להיות כפי הדין, ולא שבית דין עצמם כשרואים שיש מקום לעשות לפנים משורת הדין יפסקו שלא כדין.9

  1. שמות פרק כ”ג פסוק ד []
  2. ויקרא פרק י”ט פסוק ט”ו []
  3. The version of the essay from which my excerpts are taken is here; another version is available here. []
  4. בבא מציעא סוף הפועלים דף פ”ג ע”א, מועתק מפה []
  5. שו”ת השיב משה, [יו”ד] סוף סימן מ”ח, מועתק מפה, ועיין שם עוד מה שכתב בזה []
  6. שו”ת משנה שכיר חו”מ סימן ד []
  7. עיין הגהת הרמ”א לשולחן ערוך חו”מ סימן י”ב סעיף ב’, ובהלכה פסוקה (מכון הרי פישל) שם אות י”ט, ובהערות 130-135 []
  8. ר’ סעדיה גאון, ספר הפיקדון, בתרגומו של ד”ר אדם נח בראון. []
  9. הלכה פסוקה שם הערה 135 []