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Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

“Then the Lord said to me, ‘“They have done well in speaking thus.’” (Deuteronomy 18:17)

Parashat Shoftim focusses on the centrality of law in a just society. Each of the identified leaders (judge, king, priest, and prophet) must be moral exemplars and committed to promoting and preserving the law. Embedded within two innocuous sentences, though, is a message: the same responsibility devolves upon the entire people.

Biblical justice relies upon one type of evidence only: eyewitness testimony. Shoftim stipulates, “At the word of two witnesses or three witnesses, yumat hamet, shall the dead man be put to death…” (Deut. 17:6) Rabbinic law determines intention by requiring testimony not only to observing the crime, but to observing the defendant being warned of the crime and its punishment (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 41a). Given those circumstances, the defendant has already, “delivered himself up to death” and is described as a dead man.

Later in the parasha, or portion, the judges and elders of the town must investigate the case of an anonymous death themselves; it cannot be delegated (Deut. 21:1-9). The handwashing ritual demonstrates their “hands are clean” and they played no role, intentionally or otherwise, in the death. But Shoftim concludes this episode with a prescribed statement: “Kaper na, grant atonement to your people Israel…” (Deut. 21:8). These words remind the leadership to examine the behavior of the entire community, in case its indifference to the poor caused a desperate person to commit a crime.

Shoftim makes clear: a just society requires both a pro-active citizenry (intervening with warnings) and a reflective citizenry (could we have done more to prevent this?).  Shoftim anticipates Abraham Joshua Heschel’s formulation, ““Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” by two millennia.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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