(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...oheiv et hameisharim, loving fairness...
(Numbers 5:12) Ish ish ki tisteh ishto...; Any man whose wife strays...
The most oft-heard complaint in our society, I believe, is "That's not fair." I suspect, with less confidence, that the most usual response is "Life's not fair." While the response may be accurate, it is not very satisfying. Mostly, life is not fair because of the choices we make including, especially, the choice to equate our sense of fairness with our sense of entitlement.
The sequence of values and practices in this teaching from Avot has emphasized a succession of love. Remember that love is less an emotional or romantic preference than a willingness to act on behalf of another even when it is not in our self-interest. To love fairness is to break from the notion that what I want is what is right.
The word meisharim comes from the root that means "straight." In English, that word has a lot of different meanings, not all of them related. In Hebrew, it carries the notion of undiverted or unadulterated. In that sense, someone who is among hameisharim is both upright in principle and direct in his or her dealings. There is no hidden agenda, no subterfuge, no obfuscation and no misleading. "Fairness" is not so much the opposite of dishonesty as it is of passive-aggressive behavior or manipulation.
Traditional commentators frequently understand meisharim to mean "rectitude." That word conjures an image of prim and proper judgment, of someone remaining inside a sharply drawn boundary of rules and restrictions. But any child will tell you that there can be a wide disparity between rules and fairness. To be fair, a situation must consider not just the rules, but also the context.
That is how the section of Torah quoted above sets the scene for the accusatory ritual of sotah, the peculiar ordeal meant to determine whether a wife has sexually betrayed her husband. Her presumed action – straying, breaking faith, betraying and keeping secrets – sets a context of suspicion and deception. The accusing husband has no real proof of his wife's infidelity. He is, as Torah describes him, simply overcome with jealousy. It drives him beyond distraction to this ritual named for the alleged straying. But the word sotah has at its root not a mere inference of misdirection; the root means "demented." The chain of events put in place by a husband's suspicions and/or a wife's infidelity is not a quest for justice or even justification. It is just nuts.
By the way, I cannot make Torah say something it doesn't say. However, even without an equivalent ordeal for an accused husband, the suspicions of the wife and/or infidelity of the husband (or any partner) result in just as much craziness.
It is impossible to seek fairness when the goal is self-justification. The demands of selfishness – a desire for power and ego gratification – twist and deform what is right and proper. The person who goes astray, either by hiding betrayal or presuming it, is willing to grasp at straws and seek out loopholes to make things turn out his or her own way. But if challenged that the result is not fair, the only response is the cynical, "Life's not fair."
I was once approached to commit the synagogue to co-sponsorship of a cultural event. The organizer was the head of another local group, one with which I rarely see eye-to-eye. I thought I had been assured that the program was a community event, not designed to raise funds for the group itself. The organizer was certain he had not precluded raising funds for one of the group's projects under another name. When the publicity arrived, I felt betrayed to see our synagogue sponsoring the project. The organizer felt he had told no untruth, and that I had therefore agreed to sponsorship. As our disagreement heated up, the organizer tried a Talmudic twist. "Will you admit that there is at least the slightest possibility that my interpretation is correct?" he said.
"The slightest possibility?" I said, "There's always the slightest possibility of anything!"
"Ah-ha!" he shouted. That abruptly and permanently ended the conversation.
My silly argument was of little consequence. (The event was a bust anyway!) But imagine those same circumstances where the stakes are much higher: in public policy considerations, in business dealings, and most importantly, in marriages and partnerships that involve not only the principals, but also children. The goal to be right is much different than the goal to be fair.
Absent the love of fairness, only rules or raw power govern human life. Torah is not a manual of behavior; it is a guidebook to a spiritual pilgrimage. When we embrace its purpose, it enters us. When we betray its purpose by using it to indulge our own desires, we create a demented ordeal.
How can one be oheiv et hameisharim? Please do not seek out conflict. However, the sad fact is that everyone has some conflict in life. Consider the circumstances from all sides and write down what you think is a fair resolution before attempting to resolve the conflict. Remember – suspicion and betrayal make twisted what is meant to be straight. Work hard for the fair resolution, even if you can take advantage of circumstances to your own benefit.