Parshat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)
Rabbi David Stav
Parshat Shoftim delves into the need to establish a judicial system in every town and village, for every tribe. The Torah adamantly requires us to maintain an incorruptible judicial system, forbids taking bribes, and so on. Our sages emphasize the severity of taking bribes, and describe how judges kept away from anything that had the remote semblance of a conflict of interest. The Talmud tell us that a judge would never entertain the thought of hearing the case of a friend who had “greeted him nicely” a few days earlier.
The Torah also commands us to establish a certain hierarchy in our judicial system, so that when the need arises, substantial issues will be deliberated at the high court, which was seated in Jerusalem. Anyone who refused to abide by the court’s rulings would be considered a “zaken mamreh” – a “rebellious elder” – and severely punished.
This is how a certain degree of uniformity was achieved in court rulings. Naturally, we would expect the judicial system to do justice, and therefore the Torah emphasizes this issue, stating the following: “… and they shall judge the nation with justice”. This is also why the Torah commands us to appoint judges who “hate monetary gain”.
Yet this is where something strange happens: after being commanded to bring about justice and prohibiting bribe-taking, the Torah, once again, tells us: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land that the Lord, your God, is giving you.”
Some obvious questions emerge upon reading this verse. We were already commanded to judge justly, so why repeat this commandment? How can we explain the repetition of the word tzedek – justice – a repetition we don’t encounter anywhere else in the text? We are never commanded to “keep the Sabbath Sabbath”, or “not to steal steal”, etc. Last but not least, how are we to pursue justice? A court can either bring about justice or injustice. How, though, can we pursue justice?
It is for good reason that our sages and commentators offered dozens of explanations for this vague wording. Some explained that the text intends to allow the litigants to choose a good and dignified court, instead of settling for obscure, run-of-the-mill judges.
Others suggest that sometimes, the court will rule in favor of a litigant seeking to solve the issue in court, and sometimes, it will rule against the litigant, but the litigant is asked to abide by the court’s decision, whatever it turns out to be.
These interpretations share something in common: the commentators understood that this time, the Torah is addressing the litigants, not the judges. The logic behind this is simple. After the judges have been commanded to rule justly, there is no need to address them any more, so the Torah now turns to the litigants and asks each side to make an earnest effort to play a part in bringing about justice. The judges are flesh and blood, and despite their best efforts, if the litigants try to deceive them, they may make a mistake. This is why the two sides of the case are also required to take responsibility.
With this understanding, the text now addresses both sides, asking them to do justice, instead of employing all kinds of tricks and maneuvers designed to complicate the hearing, or draw it out so that it will result in a perversion of justice or delays.
Still, we crave to glean more insights from the duplication of the word “justice”. One 19th-century Hasidic sage, Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa, notably required his disciples to be truthful in all of their actions, in their dealings with other people and with God. He offered the idea that “The pursuit of justice should be through justice, and not through deception”.
How can we understand this brief but poignant statement? Many people desire justice. Perhaps everyone does. Yet we all want justice to conform with our worldview.
Since people are so convinced they are right, they are prepared to do anything to achieve what they feel is just.
This is precisely what the Torah is so wary of. Those who feel that they are always right can justify their conduct through any means or political manipulation. Communist movements had only the best intentions at first – to undo economic injustice in the world – but ultimately caused wanton destruction and committed acts of unspeakable evil.
Perhaps paradoxically, the world’s main problem is not with those who wish to do evil. Those people know they are wicked and that the entire world is not to behave as they do. Their evil inclination has gotten the best of them, and perhaps, one day, they will repent.
In contrast, the Torah mainly fears those who feel they are right and righteous, and use that belief to justify anything they do to bring about the justice they wish to achieve and implement. The Hasidim said that we need to pursue justice because no one can truly be sure he or she is right. After all, we live in a complex world, and it is difficult to always know what is right, and who is right. Yet by knowing that we strive to pursue justice, that is, to achieve justice through just means, we can ensure that we are getting closer to achieving it in practice.
Much has been written about the connection between the month of Elul, the month of mercy and selihot (penitence), and Parshat Shoftim. The main link is how we understand that judgment is not left solely to our national judicial system; it is a directive addressed to every individual. We all judge ourselves, our families and our communities, and this is why we are required to judge through just means in every aspect of life. We are not to be manipulative or cynical. Instead, we should clearly and justly voice our values and have them influence ourselves and our surroundings, being careful to do so wisely and justly.