Parashat Shoftim– Erev Shabbat 13 August 2021
Week of 8-14 August 2021
Torah portion: Deuteronomy 16 :18 – 21:9 Haftarah: Isaiah 51 :12-52 :12
Theme: Pursuing justice for all
Shoftim (Judges) is devoted almost entirely to the theme of justice. Focusing on civil and religious authorities, it sets limits to the powers of judges, kings, priests, and prophets. It continues Moses’ discourse before he died on the laws given in Moab (Deut. 11:31-26:15) which constitute the core of Deuteronomy.
Etz Hayim says, “By making these limitations known to the public, the Torah lays the ground for public supervision and criticism of human authorities, preventing them from gaining absolute domination and prestige.” Thus, the people are empowered to know not only their rights and the procedures to follow but also to be able to monitor whether justice is done. In particular, the prophets exercised this power as they issued woes and oracles to admonish kings, officials and priests, and the people for their religious and moral sins, and acts of social injustice.
The king is to “have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the Levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life.” This is so “he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes,neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left.” (17:18-20). No one is to be above the law.
Judges and officials from all the settlements are to be appointed. The 11th-century scholar, Rashi, differentiated the tasks of judges from the officials: “the judges issue verdicts while the officials are those who compel the people, by force, when necessary, to accept the judge’s decision. Implementation is also deemed important.”
Nothing is said more about the qualifications of judges and officials or on the method of their appointments. What is clearly stated is their ethical behavior: “They shall render just decisions for the people, must not distort justice, must not show partiality and must not accept bribes” (16:18-20).
The big task is also clear: “Justice, only justice, you shall pursue” (16:20). The absolute primacy of due justice (Hebrew, mishpat tzedek), a theme that occurs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, is being emphasized. The use of the word ‘pursue’ connotes effort and eagerness, not mere lip service.
Etz Hayim says, “The concept of justice in Hebrew is broader than just punishing people who do wrong. It is also affirmative, in that it means giving people their rights. Time and time again, ‘mishpat’ describes taking up care and causes of what some scholars have termed ‘the quartet of the vulnerable.’”
It can be said that God’s vision of a just society as articulated by a dying Moses has inspired Jews and Christians to be at the forefront in advocacies for social justice.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Do you agree that justice has to be pursued? 2. What is good advocacy to pursue to promote justice in your community or country?
Bibliography: Carasik, “The Commentators’ Bible: Deuteronomy” (Philadelphia, 2015); ETZ Hayim: Torah and Commentary (New York, 2001); Tigay, “The JPS Torah Commentary” (Philadelphia 1996);https://www.myjewishlearning.com/;
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Minerva Generalao, Philippines, Bat Kol Alumna July 2014