Parshat Shoftim


Susan Robertson


Popularly translated as "Judges," Shoftim continues with one of Deuteronomys (Devarim) primary concerns: the administration of justice in the land the Israelites were about to inhabit. I began my preparations for this d'var against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina. Suddenly, I was no longer interested in the details of Biblical interpretation. I was gripped by basic questions.


In his introduction to Shoftim, Gunther Plaut says, "Doing the 'right' thing is essential for Israel, and in this perception law is religion and religion is law." If law and religion are indeed conjoined, both suffered a mighty blow last week as New Orleans endured a civil as well as natural catastrophe. How could a section of a country that, regardless of our personal politics, most of us regard as fairly advanced and civilized, descend so quickly into chaos? How could some of the residents of New Orleans resort to such violence? How could a prosperous nation watch its fellows suffer? Are D'varim's ancient concerns with justice and social order so easily set aside?


As I heard the reports and watched the images and it became clear that those left behind in the ruined city were the poorest of the poor, I heard Shoftim 20:19: "When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?" Though they were human which of those remaining in New Orleans had the means to withdraw, not into, but from, the besieged city? Like the trees, they were rooted in the face of disaster. They flee neither from the storm nor from poverty nor prejudice.


Which of us can flee? Can we construct a life without disaster? Can we construct a life of perfect justice? Where is the justice in the huge class differences that have been made apparent in the past week? In the fact that those classes are too frequently determined by the colour of someone's skin?


Does Shoftim promise us that life without disaster, that life of perfect justice? It would seem not. In discussing the cities of refuge to be set up for accidental killers, lines 19: 8-9 reads, "And when the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as He swore to your fathers, and gives you all the land that He promised to give your fathers if you faithfully observe all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day, to love the Lord your God and to walk in His ways at all times then you shall add three more towns to those three." The territory will be enlarged only if Israel walks in the way of the Lord, and still, so walking, three more cities of refuge will be required. Even with righteousness, disaster can never be completely averted. But in the face of that disaster, we must continue to strive for justice. Even as accidental deaths are bound to occur, Israel is to increase the number of asylum cities, so that the unintentional killer will not in turn be killed.


These laws are delivered to Israel, not directly by God, but by Moses. As Shof'tim outlines the laws for Israel, it seems to also remind them of their distance from God. The people of Israel no longer walk with God in Eden, nor receive God in their tents. Rather, they experience God through their prophets: "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people like myself; him you shall heed." Indeed, this is what Israel wanted, as Moses reminds them, "This is just what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb, on the day of the Assembly, saying, 'Let me not hear the voice of the Lord my God any longer or see this wondrous fire any more, lest I die.' (18:15) But is that distance real or apparent? Shoftim says of a projected future king of Israel, "When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws." Indeed, in the words of our siddur, we are all enjoined to take God's word "to heart," to "bind them as a sign" upon our hands, and "as a reminder" above our eyes. It is through these words, and the compassionate and just acts they engender, they we retain our connection to God. Even as the world descends into chaos, particularly as the word descends into chaos, we must strive for justice, mindful of those who like the trees cannot flee. It is fitting that the haftarah for this parsaha is one of the Seven Haftarot of Consolation, read to announce Israel's redemption after commemorating the destruction of the Temple.


If we collapse the entire parasha into it's first (16:18) and last (21:9) lines, granted, we rip the last sentence from it's context describing the ritual purification required when a person is found slain on open land and the identity of the killer is unknown. Still, I think we're left with two lines that summarize neatly the condition of our lives. The innocent will sometimes come to harm and only our righteousness can save us: " 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. Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Lord. "