Parashat Shofetim

D’var Torah: Restoration of Judges

Dr. Shaiya Rothberg, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

In this week’s parashah, the People Israel stand in the desert outside the Land of Israel. Moses instructs them about the Israelite State they will establish when they cross the river. They’ve been nomads for decades in a vast wilderness, in the semi-magical state of being fed, clothed and watered directly by God. But now things get tough: they will become a nation in the Land, and in history; governing themselves without Moses their leader and prophet. The time has come that they must understand God’s expectations on their own.

God lays down the basic principle in our parashah (Deut. 16:18-20): “You shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes…and they shall govern the people with due justice…Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and inherit the land…”These words make a clear connection between inheriting the land and doing justice. If you want to inherit the land, God says, then you’ll have to pursue justice. Justice is the condition for the existence of a Jewish state in the Holy Land.

As the holy story unfolds in the subsequent books of the Bible, we learn that the challenges of self-government were immense. We warred with local peoples and scurried under the feet of great empires, trying not to get crushed. It was hard to get just government right. Things got so bad that God pronounced the destruction of the Jewish state and the exile of her inhabitants. But God also promised that we would return (Isaiah 1:24-27): “Therefore said the LORD, the LORD of hosts, the mighty One of Israel…I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counsellors as at the beginning: afterward you shall be called, The City of Righteousness, the Faithful City. Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and those that return to her with righteousness.” It was the lack of justice which drove us out and it will be the return of justice that will bring us back again.  

The Rabbis, through their art of midrash, weave together the beginning and the end: Our parashah states “You shall appoint judges…that you may live and inherit theland…” and the sages comment: “this teaches us that appointing judges is able to resurrect the People Israel, establish them in the land and protect them from the sword.” (Sifri, 144). In their simple meaning, the words from our parashah speak not about our return after exile but rather teach us how to prevent exile. But the Rabbis lived after the destruction, and taking their cue from the words of the prophets, they learned that justice is not only the key to preventing exile but also to our return afterwards. And thus, they teach that appointing judges, symbolizing the establishment of just government, is the key to the resurrection of the Jewish body politic in Eretz Yisrael.   

We are again a small state facing immense challenges. We are at war with locals and dodging the feet of superpowers, just as before. In these harsh circumstances it is indeed difficult to get government right. But this week’s parashah reminds us that we must never forget that the heart of Judaism is justice and that the condition for living in Eretz Yisrael is just government for all who live in it. The only alternative is exile and destruction. However, should we remain faithful to our mission, God has promised that we will not only survive in the Land, we will flourish in it.

May it be God’s will that the history of our era bears witness that we remained faithful to our task.