Yom Sheini, 18 Av 5779
Monday, 19 August 2019
Parashat Shoftim 5775

Rabbi Danny Rich
21st August 2015

We have become an impatient generation, and those of us with power and influence often express frustration at how long everything takes. ·We regale against ‘unnecessary bureaucracy’, ‘the human rights legal industry’ or some other amorphous principle or system, the only objectives of which appear to be to make everything slower and more costly and to reward the undeserving or the blatantly worse.

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) –which gets its name from the Hebrew root to ‘judge’- contains, in my view, the basic principles of a civilised and democratic society.

Written in a biblical Hebrew context this may not at first seem obvious as Parashat Shoftim includes a number of cultic provisions amongst which are a ban on setting up sacred posts, the stoning of convicted idolators, how the priests will learn their living, and a rather unclear means of distinguishing between a real and a false prophet.

A good part of the latter section deals with conduct in the event of a war including who may be exempted from military service, the treatment of defeated populations, the requirement to offer peace to a besieged city, and –more widely known perhaps-the prohibition on destroying an enemy’s fruit trees and arable fields. ·Known as bal taschit: do not destroy, the medieval scholar, Maimoinides, wrote: ‘Not only one who cuts down a fruit tree, but anyone who destroys household goods, tears clothing, demolishes a building, stops up a spring or ruins food deliberately, violates bal taschit. ·In our wasteful society and at a time when famine and war still stalk many global peoples it perhaps behoves us all to reflect on our existing way of life.

Be that as it may, the majority of Shoftim deals with legal matters, concluding with the case of an unsolved murder where a body is found in the open but beginning with the appointment of judicial officials. ·Magistrates and other judicial appointments must come from the ranks of those of whom it is assumed they will not fall to temptation by bribe or misplaced compassion to judge unfairly in favour of either the fortunate or their opposite. ·Further in cases of murder, assault and civil damage where the case is too complicated the judges must be self-aware enough to ensure a referral to a senior court.

Whilst the parashah is dealing with appointments, it examines the institution of monarchy. ·Details are sparse but the monarch –and it is the people’s choice whether there is to be one unlike the mandatory appointment of judicial officials- is to be a citizen rather than a foreigner who is to be of relatively modest means (‘He shall not keep many horses…he shall not have many wives…he shall not amass silver and gold to excess...’(Deuteronomy 17:16 & 17)). ·His main task is to oversee the writing of his own copy of the Torah in order that he should follow it.

The connection in Shoftim between the appointment of magistrates, the institution of the monarchy and the references to the offices of prophecy and priesthood which complete the paraphernalia of Biblical power is that the Torah seeks to establish limits to all types of human power and to make public that these restrictions exist. ·The purpose of so doing is to lay the ground for the public supervision and criticism of those who hold power and claim to act in the public good.

So next time you complain about how long something appears to take –the deportation of a convicted criminal, for example -perhaps you might ask yourself whether the seemingly slow ‘due process’ is really unnecessary ·or results from the attempt to restrict the untrammelled power of an official, a politician or even a judge.

And if you do not know, find out! ·For real justice is not about passive acceptance but about active interest as the verse in the early part of Shoftim reminds us: Justice, justice shall you pursue…(Deuteronomy (16:20).