Shoftim: Rabbi Abraham

By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

Torah Reading: SHOFTIM, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9.
Haftara: Isaiah 51:12-52:12.

The annual cycle of Torah readings is so arranged that parshas SHOFTIM, “Judges”, is always read on the first Shabbos of the month of Elul, season of compassion and repentance, when all hearts yearn to come back to the Source. The opening words of the parshah — “Appoint judges and police for yourselves in all your gates” — contain a personal message for all of us. The key step in coming back to G-d is when we “appoint judges and police” for OURSELVES — in the gates of our own minds and souls. We must examine our traits, activities and behavior and consider carefully whether they accord with G-d’s Torah and how they could be improved. Then we must find ways to “police” ourselves so as to enforce our good resolutions and carry them out, taking the next steps forward to greater holiness in all the different areas of our lives.

Together with its personal spiritual advice for each one of us, parshas SHOFTIM contains the blueprint for a Torah state in Israel ordered under its judges, its supreme court, its king, priests and prophets. Parshas SHOFTIM is at the center of the “trilogy” of parshiyos in which Moses sets forth the intricate details of the mitzvos making up the “Mishneh Torah”, his repetition of Torah law prior to his departure from the world. Following the opening parshiyos of Deuteronomy, which brought us the basics of faith, love and fear of G-d, last week’s parshah, RE-EH, set forth the blueprint for a blessed country cleansed of idolatry, where people’s minds are constantly focussed on the service of G-d in the Temple. The blueprint in RE-EH is for a nation cultivating the land, giving tithes to the priests and Levites, caring for widows, orphans and proselytes, giving loans and charity to those in need… The annual cycle revolves around the three pilgrim festivals when everyone comes up to Jerusalem to “appear before G-d”, experiencing the awe of the Temple, partaking of sacrifices and the second tithe in holiness and purity, and learning to revere G-d.

Next week’s parshah, KI TETZE, the third in this “trilogy”, focuses more upon the commandments that relate to the particulars of our daily lives in the world — family, property, how we build our houses (with a parapet), our clothes (tzitzis), personal morality, who we admit into our communities and many others. Thereafter, parshas KI TAVO will complete the “repetition of the law”, concluding with the blessings and curses over which Moses struck the Covenant with the Children of Israel in the Plains of Moab prior to their entry into the Land.

Our present parshah of SHOFTIM, which is at the very center of this “trilogy” of parshahs containing Moses’ “repetition of the law”, sets forth the necessary order of leadership and government through which the Torah nation can thrive in the Land of Israel. The parshah gives us the commandments relating to those who are the key to living successfully in the Holy Land: the judges and police, the Supreme Court (Sanhedrin), the king, the priests and the true prophets. It is these leaders and officers who are to lead and guide the nation in following the path of the Torah. SHOFTIM also sets forth the laws of murder and manslaughter, whose purpose is to ensure personal security within the country, and the laws of warfare, whose purpose is to bring security from external enemies.


“Justice! You must pursue Justice — in order that you may live and inherit the Land.” (Deut. 16:17). According to the Midrash, “This teaches that the appointment of judges is to give life to Israel and to let them dwell on their land and not to cause them to fall by the sword” (Sifri Shoftim 144). A Torah judiciary with police to enforce Torah law is the very key to life and security in the land.

According to the blueprint, the true judges of Israel are not to be an aloof elite with responsibility to no-one. The legal system is not to be a tangled jungle rife with corruption and special protection for the rich and powerful.

The entire judicial system of the Torah nation is predicated upon universal study and knowledge of the Torah, making regular working citizens capable of serving as members of a Beis Din — a “house of law” (“court”) of three judges (for non-capital) or twenty-three (for capital) cases. A true Torah Israel is one so blessed that those earning their living through the labor of their hands are able to complete their work in less time, so as to be able to study the Torah assiduously as well, as in the case of many of the outstanding sages of the Talmud. According to the blueprint, the minimum town of one hundred and twenty male residents must contain a Beis Din of 23 together with an additional three rows of twenty-three students listening to and learning from their elders (Sanhedrin 17b). In this way, justice is at hand and quickly available every day, without the aggrieved parties having to submit themselves to a protracted, expensive, grueling struggle with slick lawyers and a heaving, endlessly complex legal system.

“If there are police, there are judges; if there are no police, there are no judges” (Sifri). If there are no police to enforce the law, the judges may judge all they like, but to no effect. In addition to study, the effective rule of Torah law is also predicated upon police who are subject to the authority of the Torah judges. Some may smile at the above suggestion that the first resort for justice should be the local Beis Din of Torah scholars, wondering how many of today’s yeshivah alumni would be capable of acting as judges, let alone having police under them. It should be remembered that one of the reasons why the study of Talmudic law often appears detached from life in the rough and tumble of the actual world is because during most of the past two thousand years, rabbinical courts everywhere have been stripped of all meaningful sanctions with which to impose and enforce Torah law. The result is that the Torah has authority only over those who give it authority in their lives. Indeed, contemporary “political correctness” is appalled at the idea of rabbis “interfering” in areas that are considered in the realm of personal conscience, such as whether a person worships before a statue or image or violates the Shabbat, or what he or she does with another consenting adult. Yet under Torah law all of these may involve capital punishment, as we find in the case of idolatry in our parshah (Deut. 17:5). Many other sins that the wider society does not consider “criminal” can render a person liable to 39 lashes, such as wearing a forbidden mixture of wool and linen or eating meat cooked with milk.

The wider society obviously has some way to go in order to accept the law of the Torah. Those who yearn for the rule of Torah law and the blessing that it will bring can learn from our present parshah of SHOFTIM that constant study of study of the law is the foundation of the entire system.

While every layman is expected to be versed in the law, the commandment to “pursue Justice! Justice!” is interpreted to mean you should go to a “beautiful” Beis Din and seek out the best judges: the true sages and guardians of the Torah.

Our parshah instructs us that “when a matter of law is to wondrous for you. you shall rise up and go up to the place which HaShem your G-d will choose.” (Deut. 17:8). If the local scholars and maveens do not know the correct answer, we are instructed to search out the wisest and most profoundly learned. It is evident from our parshah that the spiritual source of the wisdom of the Torah lies on Mount Moriah, “the Mountain of Teaching” — the Temple Mount. In Temple times, there was a hierarchy of three courts that were in constant session on the Temple Mount: one at the very entrance and one inside, while the Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin, sat immediately adjacent to the inner Temple courtyard (Azara), in the Lishkas HaGozis, (“Hewn Chamber”).

The teachings of the sages of the Sanhedrin in Temple times constitute the oral Torah tradition handed down from teacher to student going back to Moses and Joshua. This is incorporated in the Mishneh and Talmud, which are the core of the study of Torah law today. Obedience to the oral law as handed down by the true sages is itself one of the commandments of the Torah in our parshah: “According to the Torah that they will teach you and the law that they will tell you shall you do: you shall not depart from the word that they tell you right or left.” (Deut. 17:11). Even an outstanding sage who deviates from the majority opinion of the sages of the Sanhedrin is liable to the death penalty as a “rebellious elder” (ibid. v. 12-13). It is noteworthy that the punishment of the rebellious elder is one of those cases (like that of false witnesses) that is to be loudly publicized among the people. Here is another respect in which the blueprint for a Torah state differs widely from the present-day reality, in which media controlled by narrow interests can put anyone they like on public “trial”, while the quest for true justice is like trying to grasp a phantom. In the Torah state, it is from the Temple that the announcement goes forth about who is truly evil, “and all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act in insolent defiance any more” (ibid. v. 13).


For some people the very word king is associated with images of contemporary “royalty” that render it somewhat misleading as a translation of the Hebrew word MELECH. The Hebrew word refers to the ruler who has power over a sovereign political entity. Our parshah teaches that such a ruler is part of the Torah blueprint for the successful state (Deut. 17:14-20). Yet the Torah conception of the MELECH could not be further away from the kinds of rulers who have power in states throughout the world today including those who still bear royal titles.

As exemplified by David Melech Yisrael, the Torah MELECH is first and foremost a saintly student and lover of the Torah. While every Israelite is commanded to write his own Torah scroll, the king is commanded to copy another scroll from the authoritative Temple text and to take it everywhere he goes. He is to read from it constantly — this is what gives him his life and power (see Likutey Moharan I:56). King David testified that he would nightly rise before midnight in order to meditate on the Torah (Psalms 119:148). Yet he did not flinch from getting involved in the rough and tumble of the actual world. “My hands are filthy from from blood and aborted tissue in order to purify a woman to permit her to her husband” (Berochos 4a).

The Talmud instructs us even to go to see the kings of the nations — in order to understand the difference between them and the true kings of Israel (Berachot 9b). Surviving non-Israelite monarchies have, with the complicity of the media, fostered a fairy-tale image of royalty whose vanity and emptiness have become starkly visible through an endless succession of scandals. The present heir to the throne of Britain has publicly declared that if he becomes king, he will abandon the historic title of Defender of THE Faith, and instead declare himself Defender of Faith – as if it does not matter what you believe, so long as you believe in something.

This is the precise opposite of MELECH YISRAEL, who is the uncompromising Defender and Champion of the Torah of Truth. The true kings of Israel today are the humble sages and Tzaddikim who live modestly, without Mercedes, mansions and villas, artwork, jewelry and the other trappings of “royalty”. Their wealth is the true, enduring wealth of their Torah wisdom and holiness, and the merits they have accumulated through their strenuous efforts and exertion on behalf of the community.

In the Torah state, the king himself must subject himself to the authority of the Sanhedrin and the prophets. While the king has responsibility for the internal and external security of the state, he must submit weighty matters of state, such as whether to go to war, to the sources of holy spirit: the priests and the prophets. Thus parshas SHOFTIM presents commandments relating to the status and privileges of the priests in the Torah state, and to the qualifications of the prophet and how true prophecy is to be distinguished from false prophesy and divination.


The greatest scourge of contemporary society has become the cheapness of human blood, which is being shed daily without scruples in the rampant criminality and terror that have spread all over the world. The abhorrence of the Torah for bloodshed appears in many places and is prominent in our parshah, which contains the laws of murder and manslaughter and the cities of refuge for unintentional killers. We have already encountered some of these laws in precious parshiyos (MISHPATIM, Exodus ch. 21, MAS’EI, Numbers ch. 35, etc.)

Some are under the impression that the Torah requirements for valid testimony to convict a killer are so demanding that in practice it would be impossible to bring criminals to justice. For example, in a Beis Din, the witnesses must be Torah-observant, and their testimony must withstand rigorous investigation, while circumstantial evidence is inadmissible. It is true that the Torah requirements for valid testimony are very stringent, yet Torah law also provides the MELECH with sanctions with which to make sure that Torah leniency does not lead to social chaos. Thus the lawful MELECH of the Torah state can impose prison sentences and even capital punishment where necessary even in cases where a Beis Din could not impose such sentences.

The laws of warfare contained in parshas SHOFTIM show that from the Torah standpoint, the critical factor in the wars we face are not our numbers, arms and equipment as against those of our enemies. The critical factor is our faith in HaShem and the courage with which we are ready and willing to fight for our convictions. The “pep talk” to the troops is given by the priest. His opening words are: “SHEMA YISRAEL” (Deut. 20:3) — alluding to the words with which we declare our faith twice daily.

The Torah commands us not to loose our sensitivities even in time of war. Even when fighting our enemies, we are not allowed to wantonly destroy property. It is in the context of the laws of warfare that the Torah gives us the law of “BAL TASHCHIS” (“Do not wantonly destroy.” Deut. 20:20). If this law applies to our enemies’ property even in time of war, how much more it applies to our own property and to public property in time of peace. We are to value that which has value, and not to needlessly waste and destroy. This applies to the natural wealth and resources of the earth, which are being mindlessly exploited and destroyed for the sake of immediate gain without a thought for the long-term.

The closing mitzvah of parshas SHOFTIM is that of the heiffer whose neck is broken in a ceremony that comes to atone for an unsolved homicide – a case in which a body is found in the open but the killer is unknown. It is noteworthy that the judges of the town nearest to where the body is found require atonement. It is their responsibility to see that their town is properly organized to take care of visitors and the needy, so that no-one is forced to take to the roads in search of hospitality, thereby exposing himself to the attendant dangers from roaming killers.

“Atone for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, Hashem, and do not put innocent blood among Your people Israel, and let the blood be atoned for them” (Deut. 21:8).

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