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

“Because Adonai, your God, marches with you to do battle for you with your enemies to save you.” (Deuteronomy 20:4)

Parashat Shoftim opens with the command, “Judges and officers shall you make for yourself in all [the gates of] your cities…and they shall govern the people with righteous justice” (Deut. 16:18). It follows with a set of admonitions to the judges to display upright behavior and maintain impartiality (Deut. 16:19-20). The very next command is, “Do not plant an asheirah, an idolatrous totem, near the altar of Adonai, your God…” (Deut. 18:21). The proximity of these verses allows an interpretation: an honest court is like a sacred altar, and appointing an unworthy judge is like planting an asheirah, an offense to God (Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 52a).

In classic Jewish thought, God is the ultimate judge who, “shows no favor and takes no bribe…” (Deut 10:17). Shoftim denounces bribery by hinting at two outcomes: “…For bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and corrupts the words of the righteous.” (Deut. 16:19) In the first instance, the bribe’s influence is limited to that single case. In the second instance, the bribe’s influence extends to every pronouncement, even if the judge doesn’t realize it. That judge’s words are forever suspect.

Justice is not merely an instrumental good necessary for a harmonious and productive society. Dr. Elliot Dorff (rabbi, bio-ethicist and Rector of American Jewish University) explains justice is a divine imperative and justice is a necessary ingredient for k’dusha, or holiness. When the Torah commands, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Lev. 19:2) it is telling us to be just. And Shoftim makes clear: bribes create conflicts of interest which preclude justice.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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