Shoftim 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

OVERVIEW

The word shoftim means “judges.” Issues of jurisprudence and social ethics predominate in this Torah portion, including guidelines for the behavior of courts of law, elders in the community, the king, prophets, priests and even warfare.

IN FOCUS

“You shall appoint magistrates 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)

PSHAT

In order to have a just and fair society, there must be institutions which make justice happen, and which can settle disputes. These institutions must be scrupulously fair and ethical themselves, or else the entire system falls apart. Thus, “thriving on the land” is dependent on an orderly and fair justice system- society can’t thrive if there are no mechanisms of justice.

DRASH

Our passage this week seems to have two underlying assumptions: the first is that institutions of justice are needed in order to make justice happen, and the second is that establishing such institutions is not the same as actually achieving a just society. Look at the flow of the three verses quoted above: first we are told to appoint judges, then we are warned that those judges might misbehave, and finally we’re reminded of the very reason to appoint judges- so that justice may be pursued. The institutions are the means to an end, but not the end itself.

The famous repetition of the word “justice” in verse 20 has inspired many commentaries and homilies, although it’s also possible that it is merely a stylistic device, employed for emphasis. Thus, Jeffrey Tigay, in the JPS Torah Commentary, interprets “justice, justice shall you pursue” as “only justice,” or “justice alone.” This is a very plausible reading, given that the whole passage seems to be stressing the idea that human institutions can go astray from their founding ideals.

Rashi, on the other hand, has a very different reading. He says that “justice, justice shall you pursue” means “seek out a fair court of law” [beit din]. The word I’ve translated as “fair” is literally translated as “beautiful,” [ya’fey] probably implying “excellent.” A later commentator, Alshich, points out that Rashi seems to think that verses 18-19 are directed at judges and leaders, while verse 20 (“justice, justice. . “) is directed at potential litigants, the people who will appear before the court. Alshich goes on to say that a court can only apply the law, while the litigants must pursue larger goals, including perhaps compromising and making peace, even if the strict letter of the law does not require it.

I think Rashi’s interpretation, based on earlier text, is quite interesting, for it suggests that both the seekers of justice and those entrusted with its enactment have a responsibility to keep these larger goals in mind. Those who use the courts- or social service agencies, or the media, or the legal system, or governmental agencies- are just as commanded to seek justice as those who work in those institutions. Rashi seems to be saying that it’s hard to have a good result if the institution itself is not “excellent”- so choose institutions wisely, and make sure that justice, and not just the legal process, is really the goal. Of course, this idea applies anytime someone confuses laws or policies with goodness and truth- the former are the means to the latter, never its substitute.

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