- You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that Adonai your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. 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. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16:18–20)
- If, in the land that Adonai your God is giving you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer . . . down to a rugged wadi. . . . Then all the elders of the town . . . shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. . . .” (Deuteronomy 21:1–7)
We are living in a time when justice seems to be perverted. The guilty are found innocent, the innocent are not truly protected, and all too often justice seems delayed. These days the courts have become battlegrounds for political agendas; even the highest elected officials in our land use the courts to advance their own causes or to affirm their political directions and views. The way justice is rendered today is strikingly different from the idyllic judicial system described in Shoftim.
The original Hebrew describing the selection of justices and magistrates illustrates one of these differences. The Hebrew text stresses that these choices are not for someone else, not for an “other,” but l’cha, “for you” (Deuteronomy 16:18). The Torah makes it perfectly clear that justice is an intimate issue. It is not just about lofty ideals and thoughts; it is not about some seemingly obscure issue that is hypothetical or remote. Justice, at least in the Torah, is as real as the experience of getting through an average day, because that is precisely what justice is about.
Every day, as we encounter ourselves and others, our thoughts and actions touch upon ethical and moral questions many times during the course of a day. We live in communion with others, which means that we give up some of our private prerogatives for the betterment of the whole. And the community, in turn, protects us from itself, because it recognizes the rights and privileges of the individual. The purpose of the justice system is to balance the behavior of men and women living in communion so that the community can respond appropriately to human error, both in protecting the rights of the individual and by ensuring the safety of the community.
Over the centuries, rabbinical commentators have focused on the word l’cha as the key ingredient in Deuteronomy 16:18. They tell us to regard justice not only as a concern of others in the community, but also as a very personal matter. To the Rabbis, the appointment of justices and magistrates is not solely about what is good for someone else or only about what is good for me. The appointment of justices needs to be based on what is good for the entire community. A justice cannot disregard the law in order to carry out his appointer’s interest. Quite to the contrary, the appointed justice must be committed to carrying out the law, seeing all of its parameters and administering it with fairness. That is what makes such appointments so important and why the candidates must always be of the finest character and of the highest integrity. When judges of lower stature are appointed, the entire system is easily perverted. And that is what we are experiencing today in so many quarters of our land—a judicial system bereft of quality magistrates and overwhelmed by those who wish to use or abuse the system for their own political gain.
Moses was called upon to institute such a system because it was clear that he could not be the arbiter of every issue. And he was also instructed to establish judgeships and magistrates at various levels, so that such a system could continue long after the conclusion of his own leadership. The challenge for us as moderns is to find those truly worthy of such positions, encourage them to hold office, and enable them to carry out their mandates without regard for political expediency or favoritism. I can think of no greater challenge to our society than this, and I pray that our generation is up to the task. If we truly believe that our goal is to create a nation where “you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you,” then we have much work ahead of us in ensuring the work of our judiciary and all that it is intended to do.
By the way . . .
[Some years ago, Rabbi Morris Adler (of blessed memory) wrote about a radio program that he had heard that was relevant to this week’s parashah. He told of a radio commentator who was sitting on the edge of a prison cot in the cell of a condemned murderer.]
“Soon,” said the commentator, “the collective hand of society will reach out and pull the lever that will spring the trap and send his feet kicking in midair in the death struggle. Perhaps when this happens, the collective conscience of society may permit itself a slight qualm.”
And then the commentator went on to imagine a court that had not yet come into existence, a court that had a strange rule—when it condemned anyone to death, it would be obliged by law to order a minimum of five other people to be hanged simultaneously. In this drama an imaginary court had assembled, and it soon found others to convict along with the youth it had sentenced. The five were the school authority, the parents, the political head of the community, a representative of organized entertainment, and just an average citizen of the community . . . .
The bright and perceptive author of this radio play was anticipated by many centuries, even millennia, for at the very close of today’s portion a ritual was ordained that no less dramatically indicates that there are many accomplices in the crime committed by one criminal. The Bible tells us that if a man is found slain in an open field and his murderer is unknown, the elders of the community nearest to where the tragedy occurred are required to bring a sacrifice of expiation. Then the elders are to testify as follows: “Our hand did not spill this blood.” (Morris Adler, The Voice Still Speaks [New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1969], p. 396)
- Rabbi Adler challenges us in a very powerful way. How do we evaluate the measures taken by community leaders in response to the individual actions of our citizens? What responsibility do we bear for the evils of the society in which we live?
- I hear teachers every day bemoan the fact that children come to school without being parented, that teachers today are called upon to rear children, because parents are too overwhelmed or have chosen not to do so. Even in the teaching of Jewish values to children, rabbis, and educators often feel that parents are not partners with them in that process. Whose responsibility is it to rear a Jewish child: the parents’, the rabbis’, the teachers’, or the whole community’s?
- If we see Shoftim as giving us an opportunity to look into the mirror and truly see what our society is, then we have much work to do to arrive at the lofty place set for us in the Torah. How shall we go about it, and who will have the courage to do so?