What do you want to be when you grow up?” That was once the standard question directed at young children; somehow, every child had an answer, ranging from “fireman” to “football player” to “nurse.”
It seems we don’t ask that question of children as frequently these days. Perhaps we are afraid to put pressure upon them, or perhaps ambition is no longer viewed as a positive value.
The fact is our tradition does value ambition — if it leads to some positive goal. A career that helps a person support himself and his family is one such goal. A career that serves the community is another.
Which careers are especially valued by the Torah? Mishpatim provides us with an occasion to reflect upon one highly valued career: serving as a judge.
Our parsha begins with “These are the rules that you shall set before them.” Rashi understands the phrase “before them” to mean that questions regarding these rules must be adjudicated by Jewish judges familiar with the rules outlined in the ensuing chapters. In last week’s parsha, Yitro, we learned that Moses saw the role of judge as being one of his leadership responsibilities. Only at the advice of his father-in-law did he assign the role of judge to a hierarchy of others. Judgeship is thus one of the first careers prescribed by the Torah.
The Talmud has something to say about the nobility of the career of judgeship and recommends several other excellent career paths. I am referring to the following passage in the Bava Batra 8b, which interprets two biblical verses:
“The knowledgeable will be radiant like the bright expanse of sky, and those who lead the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3) The ‘knowledgeable’ are judges who adjudicate the law with absolute truthfulness and those who serve the community as trustees and distribute charity (gabba’ei tzedaka). ‘Those who lead the many’ are the schoolteachers of young children….”
And as for Torah scholars? To them, the following verse applies: “May His beloved be as the sun rising in might!” (Judges 5:31)
Four admirable careers are set forth by the Talmud: the judiciary, involvement in the distribution of charity, primary education, and Torah scholarship.
Truth be told, each one of us must strive to incorporate into our behavior all four of these career roles. We are all “judges,” constantly called upon to judge others in all sorts of ways, and we must always attempt to honestly judge ourselves.
We all must decide how to distribute our charitable resources: the time we give to the community and the money we contribute to the needy.
We are all teachers, if not in the classroom, then in the family and synagogue and shopping mall.
And we certainly must all, according to our intellectual limitations and the restrictions that time places upon us, become as knowledgeable in Torah as we can.
We are all called upon to discharge the duties of our “careers” — judge others without bias; distribute our resources compassionately and fairly; teach little children in some appropriate manner; and, above all, study Torah.
If we do, then we are all worthy of being called luminaries as bright as the bright expanse of the sky, shining like the stars at night, and lighting up the world like the sun by day.