"Appoint yourselves judges….and make sure that they administer righteous judgment." (Deut. 16:18)

The Torah did not write "betzedek/in righteousness" as it did where it legislated something similar (in Leviticus 19:15) but rather, "mishpat tzedek/righteous judgment". That is because in our verse – which is addressed to the judges – the Torah teaches the judges something of great importance. If the judge is truly interested in handing down true judgment, he must dissociate himself from the persons, i.e. the litigants before him and weigh only legal considerations.

He must not say to himself that according to the arguments of litigant A, B must be guilty, whereas according to the arguments of litigant B, A must be guilty. He must research only the halachah on the subject matter in dispute. If he were to approach the matter differently he could not help but develop some bias in favor of one of the litigants. As a result the judgment would not reflect true righteousness, tzedek. When the judge follows the procedure the Torah suggests, then he first forms judgment, mishpat, which turns out to be tzedek, righteousness.

...he first forms judgment, mishpat, which turns out to be tzedek, righteousness.

[You will observe that in the quotation (from Lev. 19:15) the Torah describes the reverse sequence, i.e. your interest in righteousness obliges you to pronounce judgment. In that instance a variety of considerations ultimately demanded that you resort to law rather than meditation, etc. - Ed.]

If we are to read the verse as a moral-ethical lesson we could apply a teaching based on what Moses said, "He judges the universe with equity." (Psalms 96:13) Kabbalists understand the word tzedek in this verse as referring to the Celestial Court. (Zohar vol. 3, p. 198) According to the Talmud, this Court decides on Rosh Hashanah each individual’s livelihood for the coming year. (Beitzah 16)

Accordingly, when a terrestrial judge decides between two litigants on the basis of Torah law, he merely publicizes a decision already made in the Celestial Court, as any decision not based on Torah law would upset the judgment made by the Celestial Court concerning this individual’s livelihood. The words: "and they administer righteous judgment" mean that these judges hand down to the people the decisions made by the Heavenly Tribunal.

[Selected with permission from the five-volume English edition of "Ohr HaChaim: the Torah Commentary of Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar" by Eliyahu Munk.]