Let's Be Fair
Pretend you're the judge. Suppose two people are in front of you, pleading their case. One guy is super nice and is making a really good impression, and the other guy is nasty, and totally rubs you the wrong way. And more than that, you know that the nice guy really needs the money that they are fighting about more than the other mean guy. There's only one problem...based on the facts, you think the nasty guy is right. How would you decide? The Torah portion this week teaches us that a judge is not allowed to show favoritism. When deciding who's right and who is wrong, we have to be fair, no matter what. It's a lesson for judges, and for all of us who sometimes find ourselves in the position of being in the middle and needing to make a fair decision.
In our story, two campers learn about what it means to be fair.
There is nothing like the first day of summer camp. For the kids, mostly from the big city, it was almost unnaturally quiet. Everyone found themselves absolutely intoxicated by the fresh, clean, pine-scented air. "Yes," thought Debbie Katz, "this is going to be a summer to remember."
But then she remembered something else: she hadn't yet picked out a bunk bed, and if she didn't hurry all the good ones would be gone.
She rushed in to her assigned cabin, and found all the new campers scrambling around like bees in a hive, choosing the bunk beds where they would sleep that summer.
"Oh, I'm in luck!" thought Debbie, noticing an upper bunk bed in the corner. It was a nice quiet space, with its own window, and still unclaimed! She lifted up her suitcase and swung it up onto the bed.
But at the very same second her suitcase hit the mattress she heard a thump as another suitcase swung over from the other side.
"Hey!" Debbie exclaimed. She peered over to the tall, curly-haired girl standing on the other side of the bed. Smiling nervously, she said, "Excuse me, didn't you realize that this bunk is claimed?"
Ruth, the other girl, smiled sweetly, but stood her ground. "Yes it is claimed...by me," she answered politely but firmly.Each one stood their ground and argued their positions, going back and forth a couple of more times. Both girls realized they were getting nowhere fast in resolving the issue.
Just then Debbie had a brainstorm. "I'll tell you what," she said. "Let's go to the head counselor and let her decide. Okay?"
Ruth agreed, and Debbie, smiling to herself, thought, "The bunk is as good as mine." What Ruth didn't know was that Leslie, the head counselor, was Debbie's first cousin. "She'll for sure agree with me," she thought to herself.
Meanwhile, Leslie was in her room, busily preparing for the new campers. Hearing a knock on the door, she opened it and found her cousin and another girl standing anxiously outside. "What is it, guys?" she asked.
Debbie and Ruth both blurted out their sides of the story. "Whoa, one at a time!" the older girl exclaimed, shaking her head.
Ruth went first. She explained to Leslie how she needed the bunk bed for medical reasons -- she had asthma and needed to sleep near an open window. Debbie claimed that even so, she should get it anyway because she saw it first, and that's how it always works in sleepover camp. They both looked expectantly at Leslie and waited for her decision. Debbie gave her cousin a little wink, certain that she would decide in her favor.
After thinking for a few minutes, the counselor cleared her throat. "Well, girls," she said, "after listening to both of you, I think the bed should go to... Ruth." Ruth smiled and skipped happily out to set up her new bunk bed.
Debbie was left standing there with her mouth open. "Leslie, how could you?" she asked.
Her cousin threw her hands up and said, "I'm sorry. I felt Ruth needed the bunk more."
"But..." sputtered Debbie, "how could you have given that beautiful space to a stranger, and not to your very own first cousin?"
"Debbie," Leslie said warmly, "you know how much I care for you. But the two of you came to me to make a decision and I had to make a fair one. The fact that we're related has absolutely nothing to do with it. I had to give the bunk bed to who I felt deserved it. I would have been happy to give it to you if I thought you needed it more than Ruth, whether you were my cousin or not."
"Tell me," Leslie continued, "how would you feel if I was Ruth's cousin instead of yours? Would you have wanted me to give Ruth the upper bunk just because we were cousins?"
"No way!" exclaimed Debbie. "It would be totally ... unfair."
Leslie laughed. "So?" she said.
"So," answered Debbie, smiling and rolling her eyes, "I hear your point. Fair is fair. I guess I'll be sleeping on the bottom bunk tonight. At least I won't have to go as far to get out of bed in the morning. But Leslie, can you give me a hand with my suitcase? Between my mom's homemade cookies and the books your mom gave me for you, this thing weighs a ton!"
"Sure," answered Leslie, proud of Debbie's mature reaction, "anything for my favorite little cousin."
Q. How did Debbie feel when she suggested that they let Leslie decide who should get the bunk bed?
A. She felt sure that Leslie would favor her because they were cousins.
Q. How did she feel when Leslie picked Ruth to get it?
A. She felt upset at first, but then realized that Leslie had to be fair and give it to who needed it the most.
Q. Do you think that it would be fair if Leslie thought that Debbie should have the bunk bed but did not give it to her because she was afraid of showing favoritism? Why?
A. That would have been just as unfair as choosing her because she was her cousin. To be fair means not showing extra favor or less favor to people because of who they are; it means ruling in favor of whoever is right. In our story, Ruth was right because she needed the bunk bed for health reasons.
Q. It is known that some great judges who sat on courts of Torah law would blindfold themselves before listening to a case. Why do you think they did that?
A. Because they didn't want to be influenced even by what the two litigants looked like. They realized how easy it is to be influenced and to make an unfair decision, so they went to great lengths to be as unbiased as possible.
Q. Can you think of a difficult decision that you had to make that required you to be fair and unbiased?
Ages 10 and Up
Q. If someone had suffered from unfair treatment in the past, do you think it's right to go out of one's way to favor him now even if by doing so it will be unfair to other people? Why?
A. While it's unfortunate that the person has unfairly suffered, and we should definitely make sure that he no longer does, if we show him preferential treatment now at the expense of causing a second person unfair suffering, we are only adding injustice to injustice. Perhaps the best option is to try to be totally fair to everyone from the start.
Q.Do you think that it is possible for a judge to accept a gift or favor from one of the two parties he is judging, and still remain objective?
A. On the surface it might seem as if the two things are unrelated. However, the Torah teaches us that it is human nature for a person to be swayed, if only subconsciously by even the smallest ‘bribe.' A fair judge has to keep his hands totally clean and just focus on the facts.
Q.Can you think of a difficult decision that you had to make that required you to be fair and unbiased?