This week's Torah portion, Shoftim (meaning "judges") focuses primarily on the primary arms of authority in ancient Israel: judges, kings, priests and prophets. It begins with the command to appoint judges and officials to govern the tribes. The magistrates are commanded to show impartiality to all petitioners, being especially scrupulous to avoid bribes of even insignificant sums. The Torah also provides for a system by which the magistartes can refer difficult cases to a higher court. (In Second Temple times, this higher court was called the "Sanhedrin.") The first paragraph contains the famous imperative, "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof - Justice, justice you shall pursue." This has become a fundamental Jewish value.
Chapter 17 again forbids the practice of Canaanite idolatry. Anyone guilty of worshipping other gods was to be stoned to death. Verse 6, however, emphasizes that there must be two witnesses for a person to be put to death. The Torah also anticipates that someday the Israelites might desire to establish a monarchy to rule over them. Accordingly, Moses gives the people guidelines for choosing a king: he must be an Israelite, he should not have many wives, be wealthy, and the "Teaching" (i.e., the Torah) is to guide him at all times. Indeed, a Jewish king is enjoined to write for himself two Sifrei Torah, one to be kept with him wherever he goes, so that he doesn't become haughty.
Neither the Kohanim nor the Levites are to inherit land in the Land of Israel, rather they are to be supported by the community, by a system of tithes. Chapter 18 designates the priests' portion of both sacrifices and first fruits. Moses also warns the people against sorcery, soothsaying, and false prophets. Moses explained that a false prophet could be identified as one who speaks in the name of God, but whose words do not come true.
Chapter 19 begins by again describing the rules about the Cities of Refuge. The chapter then goes on to caution the Israelites not to move boundary markers to increase their property. It ends by noting that there must be two witnesses in any case; any witness who conspires to "frame" a third is to be punished with that same punishment that they conspired to bring upon the innocent party.
Chapter 20 describes the preparations for war: A kohain is to be anointed specifically for when Israel goes to war, to instill trust in God. After this priest addresses the troops, the military officials then remove from the troops anyone who has built a new house, but not lived in it yet; anyone who has planted a vineyard but never harvested it; anyone who has become engaged but never gotten a chance to marry the woman; and anyone who is afraid. The enemy must be given chance to make peace, but if they refuse, all the males are to be killed. Fruit trees are to be preserved and not cut down, even during a siege.
Chapter 21 describes the law of the unknown corpse. If a person is found in a field between two towns, the nearest town must take responsibility for the person's death. Representatives must atone for the death by killing a heifer and washing their hands over the dead animal. They must declare that they had no knowledge of the events leading to the person's death.
In Deuteronomy 19:14, Moses cautions the Israelites not to move boundary markers to increase their property. And it is from this most unlikely of places that the rabbis derived an injunction against infringing on an other's livelihood. Interestingly, this line also became the proof text for he rights of both business owners and tradespeople to form associations and fix prices.
In Deuteronomy 20:19 we read: "When in war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?" This verse is the basis for the mitzvah (commandment) known as bal tashchit which commands us not to be wasteful or destructive.
Rabbinic teaching has expanded this basic rule of not destroying fruit trees to include rules against other willful acts of destruction. The extensions of this law included a prohibition on the destruction of ships, clothing, buildings, water sources and food. There were also prohibitions against wasting fuel by allowing a lamp to burn too quickly, and a prohibition against breaking furniture in anger. In addition to the prohibition against being destructive and wasteful, bal tashchit commands us to be protective and proactive in our care of nature and in our care of our bodies and minds. Since "the earth is Adonai's and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants" (Psalms 24:1), we are here as caretakers of God's property. Indeed, Judaism sees any act that causes the destruction of the world as an act against God.
Some Thoughts and Questions
Do you think it is difficult to remain impartial when you are a judge? What happens in your family when a parent has to be a judge and decide who is guilty or innocent in a particular family incident? How is a decision made? Have you or a sibling ever exclaimed "that's not fair!" ? Under what circumstances has this happened? Did you think the judge, in this case your parent, was not impartial? What affected their judgment? Why?
Have you ever done something wrong which required a fine or restitution? Describe the incident and the resulting punishment. Was the incident concluded with the payment or did it continue to have an impact on you? Why might a fine or restitution be a good idea?
Much of Shoftim describes the punishment fitting certain crimes. What is the purpose of punishment? How do you think punishments should be chosen and given out in your family? . by the civil and criminal courts of Maryland and the United States?
What do you think of the guidelines for the King of Israel? Are guidelines important for our leaders? Why? If so, what kinds of guidelines should we have for our leaders? Who should establish those guidelines? Could everyone agree on the same guidelines? Why or why not?
Explain sorcery and soothsaying. What would be the possible dangers of being involved in these activities? Can you give some contemporary examples of soothsaying? What might be the negative or positive effects of paying attention to a prediction? How might it affect your life and the lives of people around you? How could a false prohet be harmful? Can you think of any modern day examples of a false prophet?
As someone who practices bal tashchit what responsibilities have you been given? What are you supposed to take care of? What might happen if you did not take care of these things? Consider these questions in the various areas of your life: your mind/body, your home, your community, your country and the world. If you own or possess something is it your right to do with it as you please? Is the Jewish value of bal tashchit in conflict with the concept of private ownership?
The Talmud distinguishes between two kinds of war. An obligatory war (milkhemet mitzvah) is defensive in nature and is fought in self-defense for survival. The second kind of war is optional (milkhemet reshut). All wars which are not obligatory are classified as optional. Review the wars fought by Israel since 1947 - which were optional, and which were obligatory. What about the wars fought by the United States since its inception?