Shofetim: Building and Defending a Just Society

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

From its start, Parshat Shofetim turns our attention to the steps needed to develop and sustain the kind of society Gd wants. The first words of the parsha start us off, shofetim ve-shoterim, the obligation to establish judges and enforcers.

Justice in Israel and Out

Ramban points out the verse, 16;18, speaks of such judges be-chol she’arecha, in all your gates. We might have thought the term limited the commandment to Israel, except Bamidbar 35;29 speaks of cities of refuge (also in our parsha, although we will not have the space to discuss them) as a law that applies to all our habitations, implying a functioning legal system outside of Israel.

Makkot 7a instead says the words in this parsha tell us the every city in Israel means must have a court, where outside of Israel, only every region of Jewish habitation must. Ramban adds the obligation is only in full force when judges have the semicha given by Moshe to his students, from there by teacher to student through the generations. Lost in the time of the Talmud, Ramban says the mitzvah of appointing judges will not return fully until that semicha is recovered (he probably meant by the arrival of Eliyahu in the run-up to the Messianic era; Rambam had offered another idea as well).

The Delicacy of Justice

Several of the Torah’s comments and warnings to judges show why we would need them to be well-trained. The first verse of the parsha defines their job as to judge mishpat tzedek, a phrase Onkelos renders din de-keshot, true justice. Tzedek would usually mean righteous or proper, Onkelos seems to want to stress the need for reaching the truth.

One way to lose the truth comes when 16;19, the next verse, says bribery blinds the eyes of the discerning, vi-salef divrei tzaddikim. Where translations take it to mean will stop litigants who are correct from presenting their claims well, Onkelos says it destroys words that should have been well-formulated. Even before the judges know where the truth lies, a bribe will stop them from registering well-presented claims as they should have.

Rashi ratifies both of Onkelos’ ideas, the concern with allowing for proper presentation of evidence and of avoiding the insidious effects of a bribe. When 16;19 warns lo takir panim, do not favor a litigant, Rashi says treating either litigant better—speaking more softly, allowing him/her to sit—will interfere with the other litigant’s ability to present his/her case in the best way.

The same verse says bribes blind the discerning, to Rashi a reminder a bribe will color how the judge sees the evidence, will make it harder if not impossible to see the truth.

Preserving the System with Public Justice

In two cases in the parsha, the Torah makes a point of the importance of the populace at large hearing of the punishment. For a zaken mamrei, 17;13, a Torah scholar who refuses to accept the judgment of the Sanhedrin, and for edim zomemim, 19;20, witnesses put to death for having presented false testimony in a capital case, the Torah tells us to be sure the nation hears about it.

In these instances, at least, punishment comes also to teach a lesson to others. Some of whom, Rashi reads 19;13 to indicate, might think there’s no point in the death penalty, especially for a murderer, since it will not bring back the victim.

Justice is worth it even if it seems to cause damage in the short term to build a society where justice reigns.

It’s Not All In Our Hands

Humans cannot control all of society’s needs, however, such as in knowing the future. After a series of prohibitions of forms of divination, 18;13 commands Jews to be tamim, whole, with Gd. Rashi thinks it urges us to leave the future to Gd, not to work too hard to figure out how it will look, to accept all Gd sends with equanimity.

Ramban focuses the command as a reminder to look only to prophets for predictions, to keep in mind Gd can change even what seems the most certain path of event. As he had said for judges, Ramban thinks the Land of Israel has an advantage in terms of prophets. When 18;15 says Gd will establish a prophet mi-kirbecha, from among you, Ramban says it only happens in Israel [a prophet who had already had prophecy in Israel could experience it elsewhere as well, such as Yonah and Yehezkel]. Me-ahecha, from your brethren, means only Jews, non-Jews such as Bil’am in this view more sorcerers than prophets.

Side by side with an assiduous concern with human-administered justice, the Torah limits Jews to prophecy as the only method of accessing information about the future.

Gd Helps Us in War

The end of the parsha teaches us about going to war, another human activity where Jews are supposed to keep Gd in mind. The kohen who exhorts the people on their way out reminds them not to be afraid of the battle, because your Gd is “going with you, to fight for you.” Onkelos consistently translates le-hillahem, to fight, as le-agaha lechon kerav, to wage war for you, without worrying about the element of physicality he usually avoids. Gd producing victory on our behalf is waging war, however it happens.

Ramban emphasizes the faith element, the confidence Gd can help us win without any casualties, should we merit it. Armed with such certainty, the Jew would engage without any fear, as the kohen adjures.

Some people will not reach that level of certainty about Gd. After the kohen finishes, the shoterim, the law-enforcers, announce exemptions. Most have to do with people in the middle of an important life event (betrothed a woman but not yet married her, for example); 20;8 also has them discharge a man who is afraid.

Ramban records the two views in Sotah 44a, R. Yose HaGlili thinks this man must know of a personal sin that would exclude him from Gd’s protection, otherwise the kohen’s words should have assuaged his fears. R. Akiva took it more literally, someone who was still afraid, for whatever reason.

The verse ends with an apparent explanation, to avoid him infecting fellow soldiers with fear. Ramban notes Behag took this as a prohibition against staying, the fearful Jew must leave the camp to be sure he not spread his negativity.

The end of the passage, verse nine, brings back the mundane in a most casual way, after the shoterim finish their list of exemptions, they appoint officers for the upcoming war. Ramban emphasizes the point, despite our being obligated to trust Gd will conduct the war for us, we also must act as if we are engaging an ordinary human war, with a chain of command [and strategies, as Yehoshu’a will eventually do at Ai].

It pulls us two ways. If we truly trust Gd, how do we motivate ourselves to ordinary efforts? On the flip side, if we make those efforts and win, how will we remember Gd’s role?

The Problematic Enemy

Divrei Ha-Yamim II;28;15 tells of a war between the two later Kingdoms of Israel. The Northern Kingdom won this war, then clothed and fed the captives they had taken, brought them to Yeriho, and freed them. Rashi says 20;3 stresses the wars of conquest of the Land will be against oyeveichem, your enemies, to remind us we cannot expect such beneficent treatment. Wars with non-Jews cannot expect such treatment.

Jews also seek to avoid unnecessary killing. Before every war, the Jews would call for peace, 20;10-11, to hold out the option of tribute and servitude (for faraway cities; ones in Israel would also have to commit to relinquishing worship of powers other than Gd). Ramban assumes this option was given to all cities, and the people of Giv’on—who tricked Yehoshu’a into a treaty—either misunderstood, thought their deadline for accepting peace had passed, or were unwilling to accept the terms the Torah tells Jews to offer. The default, though, is to offer ways to avoid killing and death.

If those do not work, we indeed must kill any members of that society (unless they flee). The Torah, 20;18, says it is that they not teach or lure us to adopt the abominations they did to their gods. For Ramban, the Torah means they will convince us to worship Gd the way they worshipped their gods. One non-Jew would be enough to introduce a form of worship we will find attractive and convince ourselves makes sense to use in serving Gd, he says.

It is that danger that precludes leaving even one such non-Jew around. [I wonder why these forms of worship are so enticing; Ramban does not give an answer here, so I will leave it.]

Start to finish, the parsha lays out ways for Jews to build a successful and successfully Gd-focused society, in law and order within the society and when our society encounters another one, in war.

About Gidon Rothstein

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