Thursday, September 8, 2016

Parashat Shoftim and Patriot's Day

            Shabbat Shalom and allow me to again welcome and thank our guests for being here. It just so happens that in the Torah portion that Jews around the world will read this week, we are commanded to set for ourselves law enforcement in every city. The very first verse of Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18) translates as, “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment,” and the earliest rabbis of the Mishnah recorded in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, that the words for judges (shoftim) and law enforcement (Shotrim) are plural because none should judge alone. The great medieval commentator Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, also known as Rashi, added to this verse that the meaning of saying, “in all your cities” and “for your tribes,” means that every city and each group of people should have their own judge and enforcers of the judge’s decrees, such that the community’s own norms and customs may be upheld. The next line tells us that we must “not pervert justice,” and the third line is likely one of the most famous in the whole Torah: “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” This verse, Deuteronomy 16:20, teaches us also that there is a just way of pursuing justice and an unjust way, and that to truly pursue justice we must do so the right way, following protocol, and being mindful of the pitfalls of subconscious judgements. This parasha also tells us that if we suspect a neighbor of wrongdoing, we must investigate the matter thoroughly, and then, if it seems like the evidence supports our suspicions, we must still bring the person out in front at least two other witnesses, that no one, not even a suspected criminal, may be killed by the judgement of one alone. The Torah says to bring the suspect in front of two or three witnesses, and you may think this is in case the they each have a different view and a tie-breaker is needed, but Rashi explains that this is actually to safeguard against the possibility that the first two witness may be colluding together to condemn this person to death.
            These themes recur throughout this portion, and indeed, many times in the Torah. Judaism upholds righteousness and believes in an equal protection of all life. There is a great concern in our texts to ensure that law and order is maintained, and also that true justice is honored, that the whole community must be involved in keeping each other safe and on the right path. The Talmud, a compendium of Jewish laws and daily practices, says that to take one life is to destroy the world and to save one life is to save the world entire, and there were arguments throughout the texts about how to properly execute justice in a serious manner without causing undue harm to the communities, even in questions of self-defense. For example, in Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud, sugya 57a, it states that if someone is coming to kill another, and the defender would be able to save himself by merely maiming the would-be killer, but instead does kill him, the defender is still liable for murder. In the codes of Jewish law on war, there are pages and pages discussing the use of unnecessary force, and what the possibilities are for the quickest path to peace with least amount of destruction to fellow human beings, whether civilian or warrior, and even to the environment (this Torah portion is also the source for that, as it tells us not to needlessly lay waste to the fruit-bearing trees surrounding a city with which the Israelites may be at war).
Law and justice is no easy matter, and our tradition takes this task very seriously. Judaism teaches us to be grateful to those that help to uphold safety in our communities and respect those that concern themselves in the matters of justice and righteousness. It also condemns those that fail in this duty and miss the mark on true justice and upholding righteousness. On this Patriot’s Shabbat, may we enter this weekend with gratitude for this respite of peace, and look forward to many more days ahead of pursuing justice, safety, and a healthy community. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.      

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