Parashat Shoftim Essay – “Return our Judges of Old”
This week’s Torah portion Shoftim opens up with the law of appointing Judges starting from chapter 16:18 through chapter 17:13. It then begins to discuss the laws of kings from 17:13 through 17:20.
Verse 16:18 says “You shall appoint for yourself judges and officers in all your gates (towns) which Hashem your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.”
Rashi, the most famous Jewish commentator on the Torah and Talmud -Harav Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), explains the latter part of verse 16:18 that says “and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.” teaches us that this phrase means – That we must appoint judges that are experts and righteous to judge righteously. The difficulty of Rashi’s explanation at first glance is that does not seem to be the simple meaning of the text. When reading the verse it appears that it is referring to the way the judges should judge – meaning righteously. Why then does Rashi explain that it is referring to the appointment of judges?
Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerona (1320-1376) one of the great Spanish medieval Talmudic scholars – known as the RaN explains what is behind Rashi’s commentary. The fact that the next verse says “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the righteous claims.” refers to the way a judge must judge the first verse is therefore superfluous and must be referring to something else. This is the opening that Rashi has to teach us an additional fact regarding the appointment of judges. Elected judges must be righteous individuals. In Judaism righteous means both righteous in respect to Hashem and righteous in respect to man. A judge theoretically can make a righteous judgement according to Jewish law but he himself can be lacking righteousness. The Torah is teaching us an important lesson that it is not enough that one judge righteously but that one also behave righteously. It is the responsibility of the people of Israel to see to it that their judges are righteous.
The RaN continues to explain that the fact that this phrase is in third person unlike the other part of the verse means that it is not a commandment but a description of a situation. The only way to insure that the judgment will be fair is by appointing righteous judges.
The RaN goes on to give his own explanation of the seemingly superfluous phrase. He says just like every nation of the world Israel must have a judicial system in order to maintain law and order in society. Even criminals have a system of rules that they must abide by. Nevertheless, the judicial system of Israel is unique. Israel is commanded to follow the Torah laws! Many of them have nothing to do with keeping society at peace. For example laws of the Temple, dietary laws, laws of Sabbath, agricultural laws etc. It is the responsibility of the judges to make sure that we fulfill all the commandments of the Torah regardless of their effect on keeping the peace. Each and every law has to be done exactly how the Torah requires it to be done. In those instances where Torah law does relate to social order like dealing with murderers and other severe criminals it is not so simple to punish these perpetrators because of the complexity of Torah law. The Torah outlines an extremely precise way in which the court can go about convicting severe criminals. One example is the requirement of a warning given by the witnesses to the person before he commits the crime. The warning has to be given close to the criminal act and the criminal must respond that he knows that it is wrong and nevertheless he is doing it. When it comes time for the actual court case the witnesses have to be scrutinized so carefully and they can easily foul up. There are also other requirements regarding the judges that can create more barriers for judges in convicting criminals. For this reason, Israel also needs a system of law that will make it easier to punish serious criminals even though according to Torah law they would not receive a punishment. This is where a king’s role comes into play. This is the reason why the Torah brings the laws of kings right after the laws of judges. They complement one another. It is the king’s job to maintain law and order. At the same time the Torah stresses the importance of his connection to the Torah which he must maintain his entire life. “Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a two copies of this Torah on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests” And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Hashem his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them” 17:18-19 We learn from the phrase that it shall be with him – that everywhere the kind goes it must be with him. When he goes to battle, sits in court, or even walks the streets the Torah must be with him. This king David summarizes in Psalms 16:8 “I place Hashem always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.
We still need to clarify the necessity of Torah law. It seems so much easier and convenient to allow the king to handle the criminals and keep law and order. Why do we need the complexity of Torah law? The RaN explains that the unique importance of making judgments according to Torah law has the power to bring upon the nation of Israel tremendous Divine energy. Unlike, secular law that has no purpose other than maintaining law and order the Torah has the amazing ability to cause the Divine Presence to rest upon us. This is the RaN says is the deep meaning of the verse “and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.” Meaning that by doing so they have the power of bringing down Divine abundance upon us. This is the reason that the Sanhedrin (The Supreme Court) had to stand in the temple in the Lishkat Hagazit – the Chamber of the Hewn Stone at the entrance to the Temple the place where the Divine presence is felt. As it says in Psalms 82:1 “A song of Asaph. God stands in the congregation of judges; in the midst of the judges He will judge.” This is what the Talmud is referring to in Shabbat 10A – that any judge who judges in accordance with Torah law is a partner in creation.
Through the contemplation of the fascinating world of Hashem’s creation one can cleave to Hashem and see how the world testifies to His presence. The same way judging according to Torah law has the same ability of testifying to the creator revealing the Divine energy in our everyday lives through Torah observance.
This explains why the laws of appointing judges applies only in the land of Israel. Only when the people of Israel are living in the land of prophecy, the land of the Divine presence can they reach this spiritual level that can connect them with Hashem.
Thank G-D today after returning to the land of Israel after 2000 years of exile we can again begin to experience the Divine presence as in the days of old!
Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith