The parashah describes terrible calamities — disease, war, famine, and exile — that occur when the Jewish people abandon the Torah. According to Talmudic tradition, a primary cause for punishment is one particular offense: judicial corruption.
“As a punishment for [unnecessary] delay in executing judgment, perversion of judgment, and neglect of Torah — sword and plunder increase, pestilence and famine ensue. People eat, yet remain hungry; and they eat their bread by weight.” (Shabbat 33a)
Why does judicial abuse bring about such harsh punishments?
When the court system is corrupt, acquitting the guilty and convicting the innocent, instead of advancing social justice, it promotes injustice and exploitation. A dishonest judicial system indicates that the fundamental social order has unraveled; society has degenerated to gangs of rapacious wolves, as the rich and powerful prey upon the weak and unprotected. In such a disastrous situation, the institutions of society must be completely revamped. If society refuses on its own to champion justice, Divine providence intervenes to uproot society, so that it may be rebuilt on foundations of justice and truth.
What did the Sages mean by bitul Torah — ‘neglect of Torah’? How is this connected to judicial corruption?
The term bitul Torah refers to a moral decay in society’s inner spirit, when the people reject the Torah as an inspiration to seek justice. Its teachings no longer serve as a guideline for spiritual and ethical goals. Bereft of spiritual aspirations, life degenerates into the self-centered pursuit of materialism. Goals are reduced to the mere fulfillment of physical wants and desires. This egocentric attitude undermines one’s willingness to work for the communal good and the proper respect for the rights of others.
The Sages taught that people suffer by “eating, yet remaining hungry.” Why this particular punishment?
Our sense of self-worth is based on feelings of honor and integrity. When the principles of law and order are ignored, our positive self-image is damaged. The human soul naturally aspires to the ideals of goodness, enlightenment, and fairness. When our goals are limited only to that which the hand may grab and the tooth may chew, the soul becomes unfulfilled and dissatisfied. We eat to fill our bellies, yet remain feeling empty and discontented.
The Sages also taught that “they eat their bread by weight.” What is the nature of this hardship?
Bread is usually sold by unit, not by weight. But in times of famine, bread becomes a scarce commodity and is sold by weight. This change helps reinforce a heightened sensitivity toward the property rights of others. Our former unconcern regarding theft, our indifference toward the property of others, is corrected by a keen awareness of the value of every gram of a loaf of bread.
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 185-186.)