Parshat Shoftim: “Through Justice, a King Establishes the Land” (Mishlei 29:4)
Michal and Rabbi Shai Freundlich are Straus-Amiel shlichim in Mexico City, where Shai is Rabbi of the Ashkenazi Community
The Book of Devarim comprises Moshe’s great speech to the People. The first half of the Book constitutes words of rebuke, guidance and advisement. The second half of the Book gives instruction of new mitzvot not previously mentioned (for various reasons), and also expounds upon mitzvot already commanded.
In the beginning of our portion, we are commanded to appoint judges and [law enforcement] officers (“shotrim“): “Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates” (Devarim 16:18). The Torah commands us to establish both a judicial as well as a law enforcement system, as explained by Rashi on the verse: “‘Judges and officers’: Shoftim are the judges who pronounce sentence, and shotrim are those who chastise the people at their [the judges’] order”.
It is true that a judicial system had already been formed following the advice of Yitro to Moshe, namely – to select “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain” (Shemot 18:21) who would be appointed as rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens so that they might judge the people and render righteous judgement. However, the judges appointed by Moshe at Yitro’s advice are not the same type of judges we are instructed to appoint in our portion.
The role of the judges in the desert
When Yitro sees how busy Moshe is with the people who approach him, he says: “Why sit thou thyself alone, and all the people stand about thee from morning unto evening?” (Shemot 18:14). Moshe replies: “Because the people come unto me to inquire of God” (ibid, 15). In other words, the People come to Moshe because they seek the word of God! It follows then that Moshe served as judge, pronouncing judgement and giving rulings in matters of halakha – not because he was wise, or a man of great insight, but because he was the one who brought God’s words to the People!
Yitro understands this well, and thus, when giving counsel to Moshe, speaks of two separate roles: The first is “be thou for the people before God” (ibid., 19). Rashi explains this to mean “be the agent and intermediary between them and the Omnipresent, and be the one who enquires of Him regarding the judgments”.
The second role would be that of the judges, as is written – “Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men…” so that they might judge the People and render righteous judgement. In other words, these appointees will sit in judgement on a regular basis. The words of the verse reflect this perfectly: ” And they judged the people at all seasons: the hard causes they brought unto Moshe, but every small matter they judged themselves.” The hard causes are those matters that require Divine clarification, like the question posed by the daughters of Tzelofchad; while the small matters are such laws that had already been clarified by God to Moshe, and all that was needed in such case was to teach the laws to the people.
It follows that the role of the judges was to act as instructors of Torah Law, and convey the Word of God to the People. This particular system of instruction was indeed appropriate for the miraculous existence that prevailed in the desert, where God’s presence was felt on a daily basis: the food that fell from heaven, the protective clouds surrounding the People, and the nation’s extraordinary daily conduct. However, upon entering the Land of Israel, all this was bound to change, as would the role of the judges.
One of the things I was forced to learn upon embarking on shlichut abroad was the importance of understanding the new cultural reality into which I was about to enter. Only once this was achieved could I hope to continue learning and, in turn, teach others. Understanding a culture does not only involve learning a new vocabulary; rather, it entails a deep understanding of the spirit of the language, its cultural power and its myriad of layers. At the same time, we, as shlichim, are required to clarify the ways of the Torah and its concepts in such manner that would be comprehensible to the local public and hence open gateways into the world of Torah. This requires of us to exert much efforts in order to gain a broad and extensive knowledge and understanding of the culture in which we operate.
Similarly, in our portion the transition from life in the wilderness to regular life in the Land of Israel had to undergo a transformation, as did the role of the judges. No longer would this role solely entail the instruction of the Torah and the transfer God’s Word to the People, as was the case until now. From this point onwards, rulings pertaining to daily reality would have to be given in accordance with Torah Law. What this new reality requires of us, even at present, is the ability to connect profound Torah study to our mundane world. However, our perspective must not be from within the hall of Torah study looking outwards onto the world; rather, we must first scrutinize Torah through the prism of the physical world, and then back again in the opposite direction. This was the new role the judges had to assume henceforth.
As explained above, Rashi clarifies that the judges mentioned in the first verse of the parsha are appointed persons who pronounce sentence. Pronouncing sentence means taking a decision as to what had taken place in reality and then applying the law to the said reality. While the act of pronouncing judgement and giving rulings is exercised vis-à-vis a dynamic reality, Torah instruction is all about passing on the knowledge acquired in days of yore. It follows then that so long as God spoke to Moshe who, in turn, instructed the judges, the latter were able to convey the Word of God of the People. However, upon entering the Land of Israel, the judges had to assume a new responsibility, because their job now entailed making decisions on their own, i.e., scrutinizing reality and giving a verdict in accordance with a specific reality in such a manner that would reflect the Word of God.
Rabi Nachman of Breslev offers a similar sentiment (Likutei Moharan 286):
“…’Through justice, a king establishes the land’ (Mishlei 29:4). Specifically, “through justice”—i.e., by means of justice, which is the judgments and laws of the Torah, namely the study of the Halachic rulings, which clarify the judgments and laws of the Torah. Through this a person becomes “a king” and ruler. This enables him to ‘establish the land’. And this is [the meaning of] ‘Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates…for thy tribes.’”
In other words, establishing a king in the land means thoroughly examining reality and pronouncing judgement in accordance therewith. Only then can a ruler truly be called one.
The Ashkenazi community of Mexico is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The community is comprised largely of people who immigrated to Mexico between the World Wars, after a few countries opened their gates, and immediately following the Holocaust.
About a third of the Jewish Mexican community is Modern-Orthodox-Zionist, while most members define themselves as traditional. Strong bonds exist between the community and Israel’s National Institutions, and this is expressed both in personal involvement as well as in financial aid.