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

“You shall not plant for yourself an idolatrous tree – any tree – near the
Lord your God’s altar, that you shall make yourself.” (Deuteronomy 16:21)

Parashat Shoftim expounds with great forthrightness on the building blocks of a just society and identifies the qualities a judge, one of the four archetypic Biblical community leaders, must possess (the other three are priest, prophet, and king). The parasha, or portion, arrives with impeccable timing.

Shoftim articulates three obvious standards of judicial behavior: don’t twist the law to your own purposes, don’t show favoritism, and don’t accept bribes (Deut. 16:19). But the famous verse, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof… Justice, justice shall you pursue…” (Deut. 16:20; also translated as righteousness, righteousness…) demands even more of judges.

Rabbi Ken Weiss (-2014; Reform rabbi and scholar) suggests the Torah’s doubling of justice/righteousness highlights other pairings in the parasha: two witnesses’ testimonies are necessary in capital cases (Deut. 17:6), two levels of judges are to be appointed (shoftim v’shotrim, magistrates and officials; Deut. 16:18), and both men and women are to be judged equally when they insult God (Deut. 17:2). Extending this pattern, then, Shoftim recognizes every society has its opposites: rich and poor, urban and rural, educated and uneducated, old and young, native-born and immigrant. A just society demands a judiciary whose gaze encompasses all and whose rulings are partial to none.

This obligation is not the burden of the judges alone, though. Shoftim commands, “Magistrates and officials titein l’cha, shall you give (or appoint) yourself… (Deut. 16:18). Here the Torah speaks in the singular voice: each individual community member has an obligation to insist upon the justice/righteousness of the system.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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