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Torah Commentary
Shof'tim (August 22, 2015)
 

Jennifer Knobe,
Operations Manager,
Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center

PARASHAT SHOF’TIM ADDRESSES laws regarding both sacred and secular legislation. The Israelites are told that, in all dealings, they should pursue justice in order to merit the land that God is giving them. (Deuteronomy 16:18–18:8)

The Israelites are warned to avoid sorcery and witchcraft, the abhorrent practices of their idolatrous neighbors. (Deuteronomy 18:9–22)

God tells them that should an Israelite unintentionally kill another, he may take sanctuary in any of three designated cities of refuge. (Deuteronomy 19:1–13)

Moses instructs the people of Israel to appoint judges and law enforcement officers in every city. “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” (Deuteronomy 16:20) he commands them, and it must be administered without corruption or favoritism. Crimes must be investigated meticulously and evidence examined thoroughly—a minimum of two credible witnesses is required for conviction and punishment.

In every generation, Moses says, there will be those entrusted with the task of interpreting and applying the laws of the Torah. “According to the law that they will teach you, and the judgment they will instruct you, you shall do; you shall not turn away from the thing that they say to you, to the right nor to the left.” (Deuteronomy 17:11)

Shof’tim also includes the prohibitions against idolatry and sorcery, laws governing the appointment and behavior of a king, and guidelines for the creation of “cities of refuge” for the inadvertent murderer. Also set forth are many of the rules of war: the exemption from battle for one who has just built a home, planted a vineyard or married, or who is “afraid and soft-hearted”; the requirement to offer terms of peace before attacking a city; and the prohibition against wanton destruction of something of value, exemplified by the law that forbids cutting down a fruit tree when laying siege. (It is in this context that the Torah states, “For man is a tree of the field.” [Deuteronomy 20:19])

The parashah concludes with the law of the eglah arufah — the special procedure to be followed when a person is killed by an unknown murderer and his body is found in a field — which underscores the responsibility of the community and its leaders not only for what they do but also for what they might have prevented from being done.

I wonder about our litigious American society and how swiftly many legal and ethical injustices are brought to courtrooms across the country seeking justice from the judge and jury. Can we as American Jews pursue justice as God commands without seeking our “day” in court? What spiritual influence or significance does a courtroom hold rather than just a jury of our peers? Must everything reflect a Law and Order-style of television justice?

Try to answer these questions. They are difficult. To live within a just society, we need a foundation based on rules and rights. We also need individuals to carry out (without favoritism) law enforcement. Judges must interpret what is legal and what does not apply. Discussing Torah, following the laws of our people is really quite the same as living within a just and legal society. There are layners who ensure the chanting of the words of Torah are recited correctly; the jury (aka, congregants) is present to observe and hear the parashah; and the clergy serve with ethical and moral foundation to interpret and govern the words of Torah for the congregation.

Maybe a modern-day interpretation of the words and laws of Torah is not that far from central casting at a Law and Order television episode...



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