Who Should I Say is Ruling?

Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Talia Avnon-Benveniste

Who by court  
Who by officer
Who by law
And who by power,
Who by despair
Who by struggle
And who shall I say is ruling?

Sometimes, when reality becomes so overwhelming, looking at the Torah reminds us that everything that is happening has already occurred in the past. That's exactly how Shof’tim starts:

"You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes...and they shall govern the people with due justice." (Deuteronomy 16:18)

This directive to appoint magistrates and officials in Israel was issued when the people were anticipating a new life in the Promised Land. They were learning that the journey was coming to an end and that beyond the horizon, the promise of a new life was awaiting them, a future of sovereignty, justice, and fairness.

Many preparations were required before entering the Promised Land: dividing up the settlements between the tribes, drafting a new constitution, building the yearly calendar, and creating laws. The aforementioned directive was there too, acknowledging the importance of building a society with magistrates guided by justice and officials entrusted with safeguarding the judiciary system.

How would the magistrates and officials be chosen? Who would appoint them? What system would select them, and how could they ensure that the people would be equitably judged? What would happen if they transgressed and used their power unjustly? What would be the fate of those who were sentenced? What will our fate be as we face these same questions today? 

I'm raising these questions that emerge from the opening verse of Shof'tim as I face the demise of democracy in Israel. Here, the ruling party’s power is increasing at the expense of justice. Against this backdrop, the light of democracy is waning, as is the light of every individual. We're in a dark place; light is scarce and shadows obscure images. Citizens are fighting forcefully, yet without aggression, in a place where every single tribe has a separate domain, and the domains don't communicate with one another. We're in a place where a law can override the constitution, courts, and justice. 

In these difficult times, when democracy is slipping away, Shof’tim tells us how we can make things right. The portion ends by describing a ritual that deals with an unsolved murder. The local elders are to measure the distance between the corpse and the nearby cities. The city that is closest to the crime scene will accept responsibility for the murder. That city's elders will have to perform an atonement ritual by decapitating a calf in a rugged valley. Afterwards, they will wash their hands over the calf and declare:

"Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done." (Deuteronomy 21:7)

What does this ritual mean? What does slitting the neck of a calf have to do with an unsolved murder? Why do the elders have to come clean over the decapitated calf? In the words of the Mishnah, Tractate Sotah 9:6: "Did it ever enter our minds that the elders of the court are spillers of blood?" How are the magistrates personally responsible for the murder? And how does all this right the terrible wrong?

The point of the ritual is that murder is not the only aberration of the law; the violence that led up to it is also wrong and must be stopped. The magistrates are the ones obligated to stop the violence before it reaches the point of murder. This ritual is the last line of defense.

The Torah teaches us that leaders bear a huge responsibility to their communities. If the leaders did not attend to the needs of an individual while also failing to prevent the events leading up to the murder, they had indirectly caused his death and must be held accountable. They were to reaffirm their duties and declare that everything that occurs within their jurisdiction was their responsibility.

What’s the connection between the end and the beginning of the Torah portion? If we reread the verse "You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes," we can easily understand that a person's fate is in the hands of society. Will it protect or abandon them? Will it take responsibility or neglect it? These are the very questions that citizens of Israel are grappling with right now.    

A society with magistrates who safeguard justice is not only righteous, but also merciful.

Who by judge   
Who by justice
Who by hatred
And who by mercy
Who by us
Who by others
And who shall I say, are we?

Originally published: