Pirkei Avot 1:9

Rabbi Philip Weintraub Congregation B’nai Israel December 18, 2020 Pirkei Avot 1:9 How many times have you had a conversation with someone that did not go quite as planned? Have you ever sent an email to someone confirming a detail of a conversation and they say “that’s not what happened.” Two people can walk away thinking they are in complete agreement or opposition, while neither is REALLY true. In this week’s Pirkei Avot, Shimon ben Shetach shares this scenario. Shimon ben Shetach used to say: be thorough in the interrogation of witnesses, and be careful with your words, lest from them they learn to lie. שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן שָׁטָח אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מַרְבֶּה לַחְקֹר אֶת הָעֵדִים, וֶהֱוֵי זָהִיר בִּדְבָרֶיךָ, שֶׁמָּא מִתּוֹכָם יִלְמְדוּ לְשַׁקֵּר: Shimon ben Shetach lived during the rule of King Alexander Janneus or Yannai, who detested the rabbis and pharisees. Yet Shimon’s sister was the wife of that king. Shimon was exiled for a while, yet eventually was able to return to the Sanhedrin, which in his absence was filled largely by the Sadducees. He believed strongly in procedure and strict justice, yet in one case his actions led to many executions. Revenge from those families led to false accusations against his son, which may have inspired these words. Another story about him was that after he bought a camel, he discovered a valuable gem under the saddle. His students suggested that he was now rich. He explained to them that neither the gentile seller nor himself the buyer had negotiated the price of the gem, so it should not be part of the sale. When he returned it to the non-Jewish owner, the man praised the God of Shimon ben Shetach. Shimon teaches us the importance of truth AND the importance of caution whilst speaking. We must ensure that what we intend to say is heard. Taking more time to ask questions, to ensure that we were clear is vital. In my own house, I can think of many, many moments where I thought I was clear about a request and was most certainly not! In a courtroom, these attributes become even more important. Witnesses must understand that their testimony can literally be the difference between life and death for someone. As such, judges must ensure witnesses understand their role and are completely truthful. A conviction or acquittal should be based on honest testimony and real evidence. The commentators focus on the judges. They should ensure that judges are not giving leading questions or leading instructions, but neutral counsel. They demand multiple examinations of the witnesses, to ensure that the stories remain consistent and the evidence is clear. In our world, these lessons remain relevant. Even if our courts work differently than those of the ancient Jewish world, we should ensure that they are free from corruption, that they provide fair trials for all, and that all who share evidence do so understanding their responsibilities. May that push for justice always succeed! Shabbat Shalom