“You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 18:13)
The Torah is a blueprint for an ideal society. Parashat Shoftim asserts an ideal society must be a just society and then outlines what that means.
Shoftim commands the Israelites, “Judges and officers titein l’cha, shall you give (or appoint) yourself… … and they shall govern the people with due justice.” (Deut. 16:18). While the verse assigns the community responsibility for creating a justice system, its grammar also implicates each individual. Titein l’cha is in the singular and means each individual must police their own behavior; justice begins at home.
Shoftim continues: “You shall not judge unfairly, you shall show no partiality, you shall not take bribes… (Deut. 16:19). A just society has a single standard of justice for all, regardless of station. And when a case is too tough for the local judges, the Israelites are to appear before, “…the judge in charge at that time, and present your problem.” (Deut. 17: 9) Justice is not a fixed and static abstraction; standards of justice evolve and society must respect the decision of the available judge.
Finally, Shoftim recognizes unchecked power can undermine a just society. That is why the king is empowered to do three things only : write out a copy of the Torah, keep it with him, and study it all his life. Limiting the king’s authority ensures he, “… does not act haughtily toward his fellows… “(Deut. 17:18-20).
The Tsene Rene (~1590s; Yiddish-language anthology of rabbinic interpretations of the weekly Torah portion, written for women) comments when we judge fairly, God does not punish, since justice has already been done. Shoftim is a wake-up call: Yom Kippur is around the corner.