Torah for the Times

Friday,February 22 - 12 Adar, 5773

Torah Reading: Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 - 30:10)
Candle Lighting Time: 5:21 PM

Shabbat ends: 6:22 PM

Messianic Justice

The Choshen: Breastplate of Justice

This week’s parsha highlights the making of the priestly garments. Each Kohain-Priest would wear four garments, but the Kohain Gadol-High Priest would wear eight garments.

One of the additional garments reserved for the High Priest was the Choshen, the Breastplate. This, the High Priest wore over his heart and consisted of twelve jewels with the names of the twelve tribes engraved in them.

The Torah refers to the Choshen as the “Choshen Mishpat, the “Breastplate of Justice.”

What does justice have to do with a breastplate?

Rashi explains that the priestly garments were worn to serve as atonement for the various sins of the Jewish people. The Choshen, specifically, atoned for the sin of kilkul hadin-corruption of the law.

However, this too requires clarification. What connection is there between the breastplate worn over the heart to the integrity of justice?

Choshen and Moshiach

One answer to this question can be found by referring to an interesting observation made by the Tosphos commentary (a collection of Midrashic comments by the French Tosafists who thrived in the 13th through 15th centuries): The word Choshen has the numerical equivalent of the word Moshiach (358).

Tosphos explains the connection between the role of the Choshen to atone for corruption of justice to the coming of Moshiach by citing Isaiah (Chapter 11) that Moshiach will judge by using his sense of smell. This is a metaphor for his ability to “sniff out” any miscarriage of justice. Moshiach will be endowed with Divine inspiration that will guarantee the integrity of justice.

The role of justice in relation to Moshiach is actually spelled out in the verse in Isaiah (Chapter one): “Zion will be redeemed with justice.” However, there are two stages in justice: In the Pre-Messianic age, justice cannot be perfect. However, the sincere pursuit of justice is needed to hasten the process of Redemption. The second stage follows the coming of Moshiach and the final Redemption at which time the higher, more divinely inspired, form of Messianic justice will be revealed.

This sheds light on our prayer, recited thrice daily, “Return our judges as in earlier times.” We ask G‑d to restore justice the way it was in the days of old when we had the Holy Temple and the Sanhedrin. And this will occur after the coming of Moshiach with the restoration of the Sanhedrin. Yet, the prophet avers that we need justice now to bring Moshiach. Does justice precede Moshiach or follow him?

Two Stages of Justice

In light of the above, there are two stages of justice. The pre-Messianic stage is where we make a sincere effort to ensure the integrity of justice within the limits of our existence in galus/exile. And there is a more advanced form of justice that will come with and follow the coming of Moshiach.

However, the question still remains. What connection is there between the twelve jewels of the Choshen and that it was placed over the heart and justice? More specifically, how does it relate to the coming of Moshiach?

The twelve stones of the Choshen, representative of the twelve tribes, point to the reality that despite our differences we are all jewels. As the Rebbe told a woman who was amazed at his ability to stand hours to distribute dollars for tzedakah and blessings to thousands every Sunday: “when you count diamonds you do not tire!”

Notwithstanding the stark differences between the twelve tribes, they are all equally represented in the Choshen and they are all precious jewels.

Equipped with this realization, there is a smaller likelihood for the miscarriage of justice based on the judges jaundiced view of one of the litigants in a case he must adjudicate.

Jewels or Criminals?

One might ask: Doesn’t viewing both litigants as being both equally precious and righteous contradict the teaching of our Sages in Ethics of the Fathers: “When the litigants stand before you, regard them both as wicked; but when they leave your presence, regard them as innocent, once they have accepted the verdict.”

How can we reconcile this statement that we regard both litigants as equally wicked with the earlier assertion that we view them both as precious gems?

The answer lies in a more literal translation of the words employed in the foregoing citation from Ethics of the Fathers:

“When the litigants standbefore you. They shall be in your eyes as if they were wicked; but when they leave your presence, they shall be in your eyes as if they are righteous, once they have accepted the verdict.”

The key words here are “in your eyes” and “as if.”

As If…

The Alter Rebbe in his classic and seminal work the Tanya, cites the words of the Talmud: “…even if the entire world tells you that you are righteous, regard yourself (literally: “be in your own eyes”) as (literally: “as if”) wicked.” The Alter Rebbe raises the question. This dictum appears to contradict the statement in Ethics of the Fathers: “Be not wicked in your own estimation.” Furthermore, if a person considers himself wicked, he will be grieved at heart and depressed and will not be able to serve G‑d joyfully and with a contented heart. And if his heart will be at all grieved by this self-appraisal, he may be led to irreverence, G‑d forbid, by such an attitude.”

Based on these questions, the Alter Rebbe develops the thesis that one should certainly not view himself as being truly wicked. Rather, as the literal wording of the foregoing Talmudic phrase suggests, one should imagine that he is “as if” he were wicked. What does “as if” mean? It suggests that acting righteous does not mean that one is internally righteous as well. One may actually have negative traits that may have been suppressed. We should never judge ourselves by an “external” examination and conclude that we are righteous. Beneath the surface there may be a tempest brewing and a fierce struggle between the animal soul and the G‑dly soul, waiting to erupt. We must always been on guard and not be complacent based on our superficial assessment of our character and status.

In Your Own Eyes

There is another approach to answering the Alter Rebbe’s question. Shev Sha’amtsa (authored by a contemporary of the Alter Rebbe) offers (in the introduction to his classic work on Jewish law) the following reconciliation of the two Talmudic statements of how one should view oneself:

“In your own eyes, one should view oneself as wicked” means that you could and should conclude that your iniquity is only superficial. You should, however, recognize that deep down there is a core of righteousness.

There is a difference between the way we view a person with our eyes and with our heart. When we use our eyes to judge another we can only see the external. We see not a diamond but a person who is involved in a bitter dispute with his fellow alleging injustice and perhaps even criminal behavior. The judge is admonished not to draw any conclusion based on what his eyes see because they can only see the external.

Therefore, Ethics of the Fathers counsels the judge, toview them both equally “as if” they were wicked. Don’t conclude that they are inherently evil; merely act towards them and treat them equally.


Both of these approaches serve to reconcile the idea that the judge should view each litigant as a jewel with the statement in Ethics of the Fathers that they should be viewed as wicked.

First, the judge may only view their external character “in his eyes” and not their essence. Second, he may only view them as if they were wicked, i.e, that they have inner struggles that cause them to be involved in bitter squabbles but they are essentially good people. And it is the process of justice that will deal with these externalities by helping to remove the effects of bad choices.

Over the Heart

There is another lesson in the Choshen serving as the symbol of integrity in administering justice. In an earlier discussion, the Torah relates that, in response to Moses’s request that G‑d select his brother Aaron to be the liberator, G‑d replied that Aaron “will rejoice in his heart.” Rashi comments: “Not as you think, that he will resent your attaining a high position. Because of this [Aaron’s goodness and humility], Aaron merited the ornament of the breastplate, which is placed over the heart (Exod. 28:29).

In other words, wearing the Choshen over his heart indicated that Aaron did not begrudge the honor given to another. The ability to not be upset, moreover, to exult at another’s good fortune, is the ultimate sign that our connection to our fellow in not superficial.

All of us Judges

This, then, is the lesson for us in the final days of golus as we prepare for Geulah. Although most of us are not judges, we are all in the business of judging others. A teacher judges his students, a parent his children, an employer his employees, a rabbi his congregants, a doctor his patients, a donor the recipients of his charity etc. and vice versa. And based on these judgments, we determine the degree and tone of our relationship with the other.

With the knowledge that the proper approach to judgment is the way to hasten and prepare for the ultimate Redemption, it is crucial that we look to the Breastplate as our guide. And there are at least two powerful lessons we should take to heart:

We must view the other as a jewel; the negative being on the surface.

We must also make sure that ourview of the other is free of any trace of malice and envy. On the contrary, we should rejoice at the good of the other just as we would grieve at their loss.

Indeed, Moshiach is the ideal judge because, like Aaron who wore the Choshen, he sees the diamond, empathizes with everyone and rejoices with them in their moments of happiness. And while we still need improvement in this area, the pursuit of this goal of integrity in our justice system is the catalyst that will bring about the final Redemption when we will experience the more advanced stage of true and impeccable justice on all levels.

Moshiach Matters

G‑d forbid that we despair of Moshiach's coming because of his delay. We must stand ready and await salvation as it is written (Habakuk 2:3): "Await him..." One must stand alert for Moshiach as one would stand awaiting another person. Perhaps at this very moment he is already standing behind the wall.(The Chofetz Chaim)