In every community honest differences of opinion will arise from time to time regarding a controversial issue. Why do people choose one point of view or another? The right way to do this would be to dispassionately investigate all the facts and make a decision based on the view that is supported by the weight of evidence and reason.
Unfortunately that does not always happen. People are often swayed by their prejudices based on the impact of previous experiences. They are locked into attitudes blocking out proper consideration of facts that have more recently come to light.
Mishlei gives us a classic analogy to illustrate the problem of prejudicial conclusions. If one of two disputants is permitted to appear before a judge and make his case before his opponent has made an appearance, the judge will receive a one-sided view of the case. This may make such a strong impression that it will be difficult for the judge to give the other party a fair hearing. The judge’s thinking on this subject has become contaminated and he should recuse himself from judging the case.
צַדִּיק הָרִאשׁוֹן בְּרִיבוֹ וּבָא רֵעֵהוּ וַחֲקָרוֹ
The first contender is righteous in his claim.
But then his fellow arrives and interrogates him.
This proverb tells the story of a court case in which one litigant was unwisely allowed to state his case first. In the absence of the other side the position of the first party (הָרִאשׁוֹן) is very persuasive and the judge cannot help but view him as righteous (צַדִּיק) in his argument (בְּרִיבוֹ). But then the other party appears on the scene. The judge has already formed an opinion and resists the new point of view until the second fellow aggressively interrogates the first fellow (וַחֲקָרוֹ). The judge is now completely confused and is unable to develop a clear ruling.
The assumed righteous party — צַדִּיק
is the one first to appear with his argument — הָרִאשׁוֹן בְּרִיבוֹ
but then his fellow arrives — וּבָא רֵעֵהוּ
and interrogates him — וַחֲקָרוֹ.
At this point the judge must reconsider his first impression.
(1) To help avoid the problematic situation described in the proverb the Torah requires a judge to refuse to listen to a claim unless the other party is present. (רלב”ג)
(2) The Vilna Gaon offers another analogy to the power of first impressions. When a child is is born he is motivated by selfish instincts. This inclination is designated the Yetzer Hara and forms a strong impression on him. It is only after the child begins to mature that he develops a better nature with a sense of generosity and fairness towards others. It is a challenge for the new instincts to overcome the strong impression made by the earlier instincts. (הגר”א)