“Parsha and Purpose” – Shoftim 5782 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

 “Judaism’s Views of Government: Democracy or Monarchy?”

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 Parshat Shoftim

“Judaism’s Views of Government: Democracy or Monarchy?

Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Speech in the British Parliament, November 11, 1947).

What form of government does Judaism prefer? Monarchy, democracy or theocracy?

We’re told in this week’s Torah portion:

כִּי תָבֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכׇל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי׃

If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and –having taken possession of it and settled in it – you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me…” (Deuteronomy 17:14)

It would seem from the above verses that monarchy is preferred. However, many do not view it as such. First, because of context clues.

The Torah opens Parshat Shoftim with the command:

שֹפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכׇל שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת הָעָם מִשְׁפַּט צֶדֶק׃

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.  (ibid., 16:18)

לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים וְלֹא תִקַּח שֹׁחַד כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם׃ 

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.(ibid., v. 19)

And this culminates with the clarion call for a clear form of justice:

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ׃

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (ibid., v. 20)

In fact, we’re told if a case is too baffling for the local courts to decide, you don’t bring it to the king. Whether it’s a controversy over homicide, civil law or assault, any matters of dispute in the courts that can’t be judged by the local courts:

…וְקַמְתָּ וְעָלִיתָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ׃

…you shall promptly ascend to the place that the Lord your God will have chosen.  (ibid., 17:8)


וּבָאתָ אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְאֶל הַשֹּׁפֵט…

Go to the priests, the Levites, and the judge... (ibid., v. 9)

The Torah tells us to go to those who have integrity and scholarship – to help us adjudicate and make sure there’s justice in the land.

In other words, as James Monroe once stated “the best form of government is that which is most likely to prevent the greatest sum of evil.”

There is a balance of power here. Etched into the parsha is that the king is not the sole ruler. There is no absolute power, there is no absolute authority.

There are legislative and judicial branches run by the courts: the Kohanim and the judges. In fact, unless he has approval from the Sanhedrin, the king can wage only defensive wars and, according to some, capture the land of Israel.

The king cannot have too many horses, cannot marry too many women, and must write his own Sefer Torah that accompanies him throughout his life, in order to place limitations on his stature and to ensure that there is no abuse of power, to remain mindful of the true source of his power, God. (ibid., 17:16-20)

However, there are those that suggest that even from these verses, there is no clear indication about the responsibility to appoint a king.

Yes, Maimonides and the Laws of Kings (1:1) says that this is one of the commandments.

But Rav Ovadia Seforno comments that a king is despised by God, and is to be appointed only when there is a necessity, when there’s a need of protection against the nations of the world (Rav Ovadia Seforno’s commentary to Deuteronomy 17:14).

The Abarbanel states, like the Seforno, that it is not a mitzvah. And he reminds us of what happens in the Book of Shmuel when the Jewish people tell Shmuel, ‘You’ve grown old. Your sons have not followed your ways. Therefore appoint a king for us, to govern us, like all the other nations’ (I Samuel 8:5).

Which would seem to be consistent with what we read in our Torah portion.

Shmuel is upset, and God tells him, ‘Heed the demand of the people because everything they’re saying to you is not because they have rejected you, Shmuel, it’s because they have rejected me as a king’ (ibid., v. 6-7).

In fact, the Abarbanel is an advocate for other forms of government and feels a king is only a last resort (Rav Isaac Abarbanel’s commentary to Parshat Shoftim).

He supports the idea of government with term limits to avoid corruption, and states clearly that there should be leaders who have a maximum time in office of four years.

The Netziv looks at the paradigms of Maimonides and the paradigms of the Abarbanel, and he merges the perspectives. He says it might be that Maimonides is correct, that it might be a commandment, if necessary, to have a king (Commentary of HaEmek Davar to Deuteronomy 17:14).

But when democracy works better, when democracy can protect the people better, then it’s “pikuach nefesh“, then it is a form of making sure that every individual life is protected.

Therefore, if democracy can work better, then the commandment, even according to Maimonides, would be suspended in order to make sure we have a better form of government.

What is the message of all this? That leadership is not a right; it is a privilege.

And the responsibility of leaders is to be able to give of themselves. In the process, they become better people, they live more meaningful lives, and in the process, please God, they empower others.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – “Judges and Executors of Justice shall you establish for yourselves in all of your gates…. Justice, justice shall you pursue in order that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God is giving to you.” (Deuteronomy 16:18–20) In …

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Sarah Gordon

 Parshat Shoftim: Seeking justice while cultivating compassion Sarah Gordon spent a year post-college learning in the Midreshet Lindenbaum Educator’s Program (2006-2007). She is the Director of Israel Guidance and Experiential Education at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls. Parshat Shoftim concludes with the atonement ritual of the Eglah Arufah, or beheaded calf (Devarim 21: 1-9), …

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This week’s “Shabbat Shalom” is dedicated in celebration ofLeia Elison’s 4th Birthday— 2 Elulby her loving grandparentsIan and Bernice Charif of Sydney, Australia Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – “When a matter shall arise for you too wondrous for judgment, whether it be capital, civil, or ritual, you shall …

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“Parsha and Purpose” – Shoftim 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Leadership and the Law: Building a Just and Moral Society”

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“Leadership and the Law: Building a Just and Moral Society”

We are living in the midst of a pandemic in which our leaders have the awesome responsibility for so much of our communities’ health and wellbeing.

In some countries, notably Israel and the United States, citizens are challenging those leaders – on the streets and in the courts.

Specifically in these times of crisis, the relationship between leaders,the courts and citizens is an important aspect of a healthy and robust society.

While I believe that leaders deserve respect, it is in this week’s parsha that a Biblical constant is framed

שופטים ושוטרים תתן לך בכל שעריך

You shall appoint shoftim – judges – and “shotrim” in all of your communities Deuteronomy 16:18

What are “shotrim”? In spoken Hebrew, they are police officers. And the most famous of Torah commentators, Rashi, also understands it that way. Rashi on Deuteronomy 16:18

In a modern context, it would speak to the fact that it is the responsibility of the judiciary (shoftim) to ensure the rule of law even on shotrim, law enforcement. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of law enforcement to help implement the laws. We see the vast majority of law enforcement doing so do even when it puts them in harm’s way. Yet the juxtaposition of Shoftim v’Shotrim obligates us to ensure that structures are in place that allow us to call out law enforcement that does not follow its own code of conduct. It is a sacred responsibility to maintain checks and balances between the Shoftim, judges, and Shotrim, law enforcement.

Yet many commentators and Midrashim translate “shotrim” not as police officers but rather as “leaders”. According to this interpretation, the verse reads: You shall appoint judges and leaders in all of your communities. Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 16:18

The Torah’s juxtaposition of  “judges” with “leaders” wishes to accentuate that it is in the best interest of any society even with the most regal of leaders to have checks and balances. That was the role of the Biblical prophet with the leader of the Sanhedrin and the King. 

Government requires structures that allow for a balance of power, if we are to  build a just and moral society.

In such a society, citizens have the right – and I believe even the responsibility – to respect their leaders, but, when necessary, to question them. The judiciary and government leaders are שלוחי דרחמנא – emissaries of God to help shape a more perfect society.   

The judiciary serves as a check on the power of leadership, ensuring that it remains responsive and accountable .

It is telling that the continuation of our verse continues with the words,

אשר ה’ א-להיך נותן לך

“…that Hashem your God is giving you.”  Deuteronomy 16:18

Through these words, the Torah reminds us that as God gives us the Land, it is in the context of building a society in which no single branch of government holds all of the power. 

We have been given the responsibility of creating a just society. I applaud the work of hard working selfless civil servants. Without them we would destroy each other.  

But let us never forget that only by creating a civil society – embracing the concept of justice and compassion, Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – we will truly be deserving of inheriting the land that God has given us. Deuteronomy 16:20

Shabbat Shalom.

Rav Avishai Milner

Parshat Shoftim- Crony Capitalism and How to Be a King in Israel  Rabbi Avishai Milner is the Rosh Yeshiva of Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School, named in memory of Samuel Pinchas Ehrman  The King of Israel – mission impossible? Well, nearly impossible… One of the main motifs of the Book of Deuteronomy is how the …

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This week’s “Shabbat Shalom” is dedicated in celebration ofLeia Elison’s 3th Birthday— 2 Elulby her loving grandparentsIan and Bernice Charif of Sydney, Australia Shabbat Shalom: Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel – “The Levitic kohanim, the entire tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel; the Lord’s fire offerings and …

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Shabbat Shalom: Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin    Efrat, Israel –  “You shall appoint judges…[who] will not pervert justice…. Justice, justice shall you pursue… You shall not plant for yourselves an Asheira [tree used for purposes of idolatry according to Rashi and Ibn Ezra] near the altar of the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 16:18–21) …

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