Small acts can make a huge difference!
Sefer D’varim might feel like “déjà vu all over again” as Moshe reiterates the most crucial Torah values before his death. The first topic that Moshe reviews is the laws of judges, including the importance of remaining unbiased and impartial. Chazal teach that the prohibition of accepting bribes is not limited to financial kickbacks but includes non-monetary benefits, as well (K’subos 105b).
In fact, the Gemara (ibid.) describes the extreme lengths to which the Talmudic sages would go to avoid even the slightest possibility of bias. For example, Shmuel refused to arbitrate a case involving a man who had recently helped him cross a bridge. Similarly, Ameimar recused himself after one of the litigants removed a loose feather from his clothes.
While the standard of integrity is admirable, their decision to disqualify themselves begs the question: How fickle were our wisest judges? Were they so impressionable that they could be easily swayed by small, everyday favors?
The classic answer to this question is that we tend to underestimate the power of bias, how even trivial events can wield a strong influence over our views (Kovetz Maamarim, pp. 5-6). We are often unaware of just how many factors go into the formation of our decisions and beliefs. The greatness of Shmuel and Ameimar, then, was their humility to acknowledge that their objectivity could be compromised by even the simplest means. If we question their recusals, it is because we fail to accurately assess the human susceptibility to bias.
Conversely, Rav Avraham Yaakov Pam zt”l approached this issue from the other direction. It may not be that we underestimate subconscious influence, as much as we undervalue everyday favors. Instead of focusing on how bias is so potent that it can stem from even small acts of kindness, Rav Pam drew the opposite lesson: Small acts of kindness are so powerful that they can even lead to a bias in judgment. Accordingly, Shmuel and Ameimar were not easily swayed; they were properly influenced by the full magnitude of consideration and sensitivity. If we question their recusals, it is because we fail to accurately assess the tremendous value of simple gestures of care and concern.
To emulate our esteemed judges, we can work on internalizing the great impact that day-to-day thoughtfulness can have on its recipients. This, of course, entails showing appreciation for what others do for us, but should also inspire us to become these protagonists of goodwill. A smile on the street, a “good morning” at the office, a “thank you” to one’s spouse – all of these simple expressions can truly brighten the day of those fortunate enough to receive them.
Striving to appreciate and promote daily expressions of kindness is a sign of excellent judgment!