Parashat Shoftim 5780

Rabbi Danny Rich – 19th August 2020


Parashat Shof’tim takes its name from its first word: the Hebrew plural of shofayt: an arbiter of disputes. Although the Torah describes a number of different leadership roles it is not clear whether the function of legal decision making was held by a tribal official with other responsibilities or indeed by an elite or perhaps the group acting as a collective.

At first sight Parashat Shof’tim seems to be a miscellany of obligations which Moses expects of the Israelites when they enter the Promised Land. These provisions range from cultic mores including the prohibition on the worship of or at poles and stones (16:21-22), the prosecution of apostates (17:2-7) and the endowments of the clergy (18:1-8) to military regulations including the mustering of an army (20:1-9) and the treatment of defeated populations (20:10-18).

Having opened with the appointment of the judiciary (16:18-20), Parashat Shof’tim includes a description of a possible monarch (17:14-20) and the role of a future class of prophets. Often incorrectly understood to predict the future, the classical Hebrew Prophets were observers of the current society and truthful commentators thereupon, guided by the words of God.

In these six verses (17:14-20) the Deuteronomist advises the Israelites that if it requires such a person the monarch should be a native not a foreigner. The monarch is further required to be modest in possessions and the only task described is that of copying and studying the Torah. By so doing, the monarch will presumably be reminded that (s)he is subject to the law and Divine judgement.

In history of empires and states, of course, the monarchy was the executive, and the placing here of this paragraph about a monarchy limited by the law in a parashah dominated by the provisions for judicial procedure may not be accidental. It might well serve to affirm judicial independence and to warn against overweening executive power – a lesson which the regimes of the 21st century may well ignore at its peril.

The majority of Parashat Shof’tim concerns itself with judicial procedure, mainly criminal. The Book of Numbers (35:9-34) requirement for the establishment of cities of refuge for those who commit murder unintentionally is repeated (19:1-13) and a ritual, by which the nearest town collectively ‘purges’ the guilt, is laid down in the event of an unsolved murder. Perhaps more familiar to the modern reader, the Torah makes reference to a high(er) court of appeal (17:8-13) and makes provision for conviction only in the case of at least two witnesses and demands severe punishment for false witnesses.

Amidst all this formal procedure and serious offences which might merit capital punishment is the following verse (19:14)

    You shall not move your neighbour’s landmarks, set up in previous generations, in the property that will be allocated to you in the land that the Eternal One your God is giving you to possess.

Anybody who has been involved in a ‘neighbour dispute’, whether as a party, a local Councillor or a judge will attest that a minor matter of a miniscule strip of land, overhanging branches or even encroachment by a cat across another’s boundary can lead to years of costly litigation, broken health, and tragically in a small number of cases assault or worse which leads to the disruption or destruction of many lives.

The pursuit of justice is one of the most frequent concerns, not only of the Torah but of Jewish tradition. It is a matter which is personal, societal and global at the same time. Whether or not this was the intention of the redactor of the Torah, the reader cannot know, but this three-fold aspect of justice is subtly interwoven into Parashat Shof’tim.

If the world has not learnt from the changing weather patterns or, for example, the dangerous levels of plastic in our seas, perhaps our current situation, the Covid 19 pandemic, will remind us that – whether we like it or not – human society is genuinely global. What one country does and how it behaves can have an impact well beyond its borders on the other side of the globe in ways which many not be locally seen or immediately understood. Today there is wide spread international concern about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Notwithstanding the survival of unique and diverse animal species, it is apparent that the destruction of the rainforest could affect the world’s climate. During the day, the rainforests absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the air to make food in a process called photosynthesis. The more the rainforests are cut down and burned, the more the ‘lungs’ of the earth will be damaged which have consequences far beyond the forest themselves. The reasons may be complex and complicated but justice may require an international effort to protect the forest on the one hand and at the same meet any legitimate requirements of individuals, groups and nations which benefit from the current situation. It is remarkable that Parashat Shof’tim (20:19-20) in the context of appropriate conduct when besieging a city (rather than against the backdrop of 21st century international climate challenge) calls for protection of the city’s trees. It is from this verse that the Jewish principle of bal tashchit: do not destroy evolves and serves as a reminder that wanton and permanent destruction of the natural world is a breach of the human responsibility of custodianship.

What is demanded globally is, of course, paralleled in an individual society. Parashat Shof’tim’s demands about the calibre of the judiciary, the restrictions on monarchy, the endowments for clergy and the other legal procedures (already referred to) attest to this.

Yet societies are made up of individuals and, in a most collective act of mustering an army, Parashat Shof’tim (20:5-7) initiates a practice which has the concern for the individual at its heart. The Deuteronomist did not envisage that the Israelites would have a standing army but expected the population to mobilise in the face of an external threat. Having gathered the troops the officers would release three categories of potential combatant: ones who had built a house but not yet lived in it, ones who had planted a vineyard but not yet harvested it, and ones who were betrothed but not yet married. Verse 8 adds a further category of ‘the afraid and disheartened’ on the practical grounds that their presence might affect military efficiency. In a remarkable observation the French medieval commentator, Rashi, cites a Talmudic opinion that the fearful soldier is worried because his previous sinful behaviour might result in his death because he does not merit Divine protection. He should be allowed to return home but hide the real reason because those who see the soldier return will assume it is because of the house, the vine or the betrothal. These reasons, Rashi suggests, are a pretext for enabling the sinful person to return home honourably and, thereby, preserve the dignity even of the scurrilous.

Justice and its accompanying attribute of compassion is, therefore, according to Parashat Shof’tim is not merely for challenges of international impact, not only for societies but even for the morally dubious individual whose bad behaviour enables him to evade military service without humiliation.

That is the mark of true and enduring justice for each and all!

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