In Parashat Shoftim, which is found in the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim), we delve into a range of laws and principles that pertain to creating a just society. The parasha covers various themes such as the appointment of judges and officers, the prohibition of idolatry, the rules of kingship, guidelines for establishing cities of refuge, the conduct of warfare, and the treatment of witnesses and evidence in legal proceedings. This parasha, despite its focus on legal matters, carries profound messages about justice, leadership, and unity.
Note that this parasha always falls in the month of Elul, mere weeks away from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is no coincidence, as it is an ideal source to reflect on righteous behavior individually and as a society.
1. Appointing Just Leaders: The opening verse of Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18) instructs the Israelites to appoint judges and officers who will administer justice fairly. The Torah places great emphasis on the impartiality of these leaders, stating, “You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words” (Deuteronomy 16:19).
The appointment of judges and officers underscores the importance of justice and impartiality in society. This teaches us the value of acting with integrity, honesty, and fairness in all aspects of life, regardless of one’s social or economic status. Further, the judges, who are the authority on interpreting halacha in daily life, are microcosm of God, who is the ultimate judge.
2. The Pursuit of Unity: In Deuteronomy 16:20, we find the commandment “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” The repetition of the word “justice” underscores the Torah’s emphasis on pursuing justice diligently and consistently. But the repetition also carries a deeper message related to unity. The Sages teach that this repetition signifies the pursuit of justice through a united community. Justice cannot prevail in a society that is divided and fragmented. The pursuit of justice requires a collective effort, where people come together despite their differences to establish a just and harmonious society.
3. Prohibition of Idolatry: The parasha warns against idolatry, instructing the Israelites to destroy all forms of idol worship. This prohibition goes beyond physical idols; it represents the rejection of false values and allegiances. Idolatry can symbolize the worship of materialism, power, or any other destructive force that detracts from our devotion to higher ideals. By rejecting idolatry, we commit to a life focused on ethical values and a just society.
The warnings against idolatry and false prophets are obviously to be taken literally, not following other religions or astrology etc. but also in general not to put things as intermediaries. Money, power, health and so on can all become sources of obsession, all equally easy to lose in an instant. The frequent and passionate reminders to step away from idols is more to do with mindset than anything else.
4. Kingship of Humility: Parashat Shoftim introduces the guidelines for a king should the Israelites choose to establish a monarchy. The Torah lays down conditions to ensure that the king remains humble and does not abuse his power. The king is instructed not to accumulate excessive wealth, horses, or wives, and is to write for himself a copy of the Torah. This serves as a reminder that leadership should be guided by humility, moral principles, and a deep connection to the Divine teachings.
Leaders must be accountable, always remembering that they too are subject to the laws they uphold. Relying on a king is clearly optional, but even if the Jewish people demand one he is still bound with some semblance of checks on his will compared to other kings at the time who would act however they pleased. God is also bound by the Torah, again showing the way in which authority over the Jewish people must and will mirror Him, and if they fail to the society will decline in their observance of Torah as a result.
5. Cities of Refuge: The concept of cities of refuge (irei miklat) is introduced in this parasha as well. These cities were designated as places of sanctuary for individuals who unintentionally caused the death of another person. The idea behind cities of refuge is rooted in the importance of compassion and providing a space for individuals to rehabilitate themselves. While the manslaughter is unintentional, the careless behavior that leads to loss of life is correctable.
Consider that all the irei miklat are cities of the Levi’im, the tribe of those who run the Temple, who would act as a tempering and rehabilitating force. We do not use these today, but one should be careful to be around those who inspire concern not only for the self.
6. The Sanctity of Witnesses: Parashat Shoftim underscores the importance of credible witnesses in legal proceedings. The Torah mandates that testimony must be provided by at least two witnesses, ensuring accuracy and fairness in judgment. This principle extends beyond the courtroom and emphasizes the significance of integrity, truthfulness, and accountability in all aspects of life.
Parashat Shoftim teaches us the importance of justice, unity, ethical leadership, and the rejection of false idols. The Torah’s instructions for appointing just leaders, pursuing justice collectively, and maintaining ethical standards resonate deeply in modern society as well. By following these teachings, we can strive to create a just and harmonious community that reflects the values of righteousness and compassion.
Conclusion: Parashat Shoftim provides profound insights into creating a just and ethical society. Through the appointment of fair judges, the guidance for leaders, and the emphasis on moral conduct, the portion challenges us to cultivate a community rooted in righteousness, unity, and the pursuit of justice. As we study these lessons, we’re reminded of our responsibility to uphold these values in our own lives and within the broader world.