Parashat Shoftim / פרשת שופטים
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
In this week’s Torah reading, Moses focuses on the theme of justice as he continues his final speech to the People of Israel before they enter the Promised Land:
You shall appoint magistrates (shof’tim) and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)
On the face of it, it appears as if the shof’tim, commonly translated as “judges”, are the stewards of the just society that God intends for Israel in the Holy Land. “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” says Moses, intimating that it is through the shof’tim that justice will be established. The shof’tim, we learn, are to govern justly, judge without prejudice, and uphold the highest ethical standards. The law, in effect, resides in the hands of the shof’tim.
As we read on, however, we discover that the shof’tim are not the only arbiters of justice. In times of doubt, the judges are to appeal to an even higher authority, the Levitical priests. In addition to overseeing the Temple and the sacrificial rites, the priests are to resolve “matters of dispute in our courts,” such as controversies over homicide, civil law or assault (Deut. 17:8-9). The Torah envisions times when justice will elude the judges, thus, requiring them to defer to the priests.
Beyond the judges and the priests, there are still two more players in the pursuit of justice: kings and prophets. The former, which God permits Israel to enthrone only on the condition that God alone choose the king, must remain impartial in his governance and reject trappings of power, such as possessing many horses and having many wives. More to the point, however, the king must remain faithful to the Torah, keeping his own copy of God’s teaching to read throughout his life (Deut. 17:18-19). “Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel” (17:20). Through consulting the Torah and in his own dealings, the king himself is so to embody and uphold Israel’s ideals of justice.
Anticipating the foibles of human nature and the corruption that would inevitably creep into the systems of judges, priests and kings, God sets up the prophet as the final line of defense for the just society:
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself; him you shall heed. This is just what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb, on the day of the Assembly, saying, “Let me not hear the voice of the Lord my God any longer or see this wondrous fire any more, lest I die.” Whereupon the Lord said to me, “They have done well in speaking thus. I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself: I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him… (Deut. 18:15-18).
Whereas judges, priests and kings, in their pursuit of justice, rely to a great extent on their own abilities to interpret God’s word, the prophets are asked simply to speak the words that God puts in their mouth, just as Moses had done. Theoretically, there is no interpretation involved; the prophets convey God’s intentions in their purest form. Beyond the prophets, there would be no other defenses. Should Israel fail to heed a prophet’s message to mend its ways, Israel would suffer dire consequences, which it does time and again.
It is this last point that I find most shocking. Despite the seemingly redundant, foolproof nature of Israel’s checks and balances to ensure justice in its society, the system routinely fails. On more than one occasion, Israel is exiled, its Temple left in ruins, its people battered. The system doesn’t work!
Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, human beings are not perfect and the margin of error in Israel’s system of checks and balances is great. While the system presumes that all the players know what justice looks like and that they can discern God’s will through various means, the judges, priests and kings simply can’t and don’t know God’s will all the time.
But what of the prophets? Even after hearing from the prophets exactly what God wants, Israel sometimes chooses to stay a course of self-destruction. Perhaps Israel often fails to know a true prophet from a false prophet and, therefore, dismisses the prophets as delusional. More tragically, though, Israel may simply be too stiffnecked, too self-interested to care; the prophet’s message falls on deaf ears.
Are we any different from our biblical ancestors? Not really. We do not always know what constitutes justice or what a just society looks like. Even if we are committed to living justly, we are often faced with difficult decisions about how to do that. We may desire to use natural resources in a way that we consider just; but what are the best ways to produce and use energy, for example, given current technologies and competing economic, ecological, and biological interests? In the case of our relationship with nature, our actions almost always come with consequences that some in our society consider unjust. What’s worse, too often our commitment to justice isn’t there. We become too wedded to our own notions of what’s right and refuse to consider alternatives, or we simply become consumed by power and greed. Even if a true prophet came on the scene tomorrow, it’s not likely that he or she would be able to get the attention of enough people to make a difference. The world would continue to be in the same mess then as we find it today.
Because justice is often elusive, the Torah commands us emphatically to pursue justice actively, not to wait for justice to burst forth from heaven or “roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24). True, the pursuit of justice is difficult, and we’re destined to fail from time to time. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon us to maintain the pursuit with open hearts and open minds, to remember that all life is interconnected. We mustn’t forget the words that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in 1962 from a jail in Birmingham: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As we witness terrible injustices occurring daily both close to home and far away, let us recommit ourselves to the pursuit of justice for all.