SHOFTIM (Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9)

  • August 25, 2017 at 5:44 pm

SHOFTIM (Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9)

 

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Amazing how an age-old Torah portion can apply so well to our contemporary world! Shoftim (which means “magistrates”) is a “Law and Order” portion in the best sense: the first thing the biblical Israelites are obliged to do in setting up their new society is to appoint magistrates and officials for all their tribes. At the same time, these officials are mandated to govern with justice. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you (16:20)

But first the officials have to organize themselves. If the people want to appoint a king because all the neighboring people have kings, they are free – but not obligated — to do so. While this king will serve as what we moderns call the “Executive Branch”, his power will not be absolute. Not by a longshot. Government will have three “crowns”: the Executive Branch, the Judiciary, and the Prophets (the religious branch, a congress of social and moral critics). Does this sound familiar? Yes, following the biblical pattern, the U.S. government is three-branched as well. Each branch serves as a check upon the other in order to have a balanced system.

Furthermore, the character of the king, the head of this government in biblical times, is defined at length. He must not be concerned with acquiring material possessions for himself (no traveling to Egypt to get the best horses!) nor acquire many wives “lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess” (17::17). This king will not indulge in licentious behavior. Instead, he must keep a copy of the Torah beside him and study it daily in order to further develop and guide his moral and ethical sensibilities. With an awareness of the limits of his power under God, the king of Israel must be humble in nature.

This portrait of a Chief Executive may be idealistic (with his taste for many wives and possessions, King Solomon didn’t manage to fulfill these requirements – and he taxed the people too heavily), but It’s certainly a recipe for good government.

The people, too, are advised to comport themselves appropriately and not “imitate the abhorrent practices” of the surrounding nations. (18:9).

Furthermore, the judiciary must temper justice with compassion and with fairness towards both rich and poor. Status in society will not affect the outcome. This was a big statement for the Torah to make. Even though “justice for all” is a precept of American society as well, unfortunately status and riches still affect both treatment by law enforcement and verdicts rendered today: Can someone charged with an offence afford a good lawyer, or is that person relegated to the legal services of an overburdened public defender? Does race, color, and ingrained prejudice affect the verdict (and perhaps the severity of the charge)? If so, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

As for the priests, the third branch, they are freed from worrying about material possessions (which the populace will look after). Neither can they own land; rather, “the Lord is their portion (18:2). The people, too, are advised to comport themselves appropriately and not “imitate the abhorrent practices” of the surrounding nations. (18:9).

Hopefully, there will be peace – that is always the goal — but there is a sober assessment of how to comport oneself in the event of war. “Why do the prescriptions concerning warfare follow the rules of justice in the preceding chapter?” asks the medieval scholar, Rashi. “To teach that Israel will succeed in war only if it practices justice.” *

What I find so touching in this parasha are the words that the priests must say to the soldiers before every battle, an address still practiced in Israel today. Soldiers are not simply pawns in a chess game for the purposes of the State; they are human beings entitled to a taste of life before being sent, perhaps to face death, to protect their country. In Shoftim, first the priests are to counsel the troops not to fear because God will be with them, and then they are to address their very human concerns:

 

“Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her (20:5-9)” **

 

Then the biblical priests turn to another concern: fear in the ranks, which is treated with compassion: “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his” (20:8). Only after these issues are addressed, do the military commanders encourage their troops to defend their new land.

Even after all this preparatory talk, there is an essential point to be made. Before engaging in battle, the commanders are obliged to offer the alternative of peace to their adversaries. They may launch an attack only if peaceful relations have been refused.

With the prospect of several thousand additional U.S. troops – our sons and daughters — soon to be called up to serve in Afghanistan, these biblical precepts are important to understand and remember. Situations change, wars and their devastating consequences come and go in history, but human nature is constant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Quoted by Rabbi Gunther Plaut in “Gleanings,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (New York: Union for Reform Judaism) 1314.

 

**With these concerns in mind, in the modern Israeli army, soldiers who have not yet had children, are encouraged to consign their frozen semen to a sperm bank.