Parashat Shoftim

By Eleanor Pearlman

The first verse of Parashat Shoftim
(Deut. 16:18) sets a tone of much of what
follows in the parashah:

Shoftim v’shotrim teiten l’kha
b’khol sh`arekha

Asheir Adonai Elohekha notein

V’shaftu et ha-`am mishpat

‘Judges and officers shall you appoint
in all your cities-

Which HaShem your God, gives you-for
your tribes;

And they shall judge the people with
righteous judgment.’ (Artscroll, Stone

Reading this verse out loud, one is struck by the
gentleness and softness of the verse. The ‘sh’
sounds of the verse permeate throughout giving the
verse a feeling of calm, quiet, and security-the
sound that would encourage a disturbed child to
sleep in peace. There are seven sounds (‘sh’) that
are utterances of quiet peace. Without even
translating or understanding the words, the reader
is lulled by the sweet surrender, as this
parashah begins. Also, the number seven has
many other positive associations in the
Tanakh: rest on the seventh day, rest on the
seventh year, freeing of Jewish slaves after the
49th (7×7) year. Although people can tremble when
they think of judges and officers, Moshe seemingly
made an effort to encourage the people to feel
secure, calm, and supported in this new modus
operandi, the appointment of judges. So, the reader
now and the listener then are brought into Moshe’s
speech with a positive and hopeful attitude.

The first word of the verse, judges, shoftim, precedes the word for officers, shotrim. In
other words, first there should be righteous judges
and then officers who would enforce their righteous judgments. The judges set a tone of trusting
security before any statement of enforcement is
suggested. The hope, security, and sense of fair
judgment are reinforced as the parashah continues.
Indeed, righteousness, fairness, even judgment is a
prerequisite for receiving the gifts of God. As
noted by Sforno,

‘Most of the Sidra deals with
commandments directed to the leaders of the nation,
because their conduct has a powerful influence on
the rest of the people, for good or bad.’ (Stone
Ed., p. 1024)

There also is a well-developed three-tiered court
system described in Verse 18. First the judges and
officers will preside in every town, ‘in all of your
gates’ – b’chol sh`arecha. One can appeal a
decision of this local court to the tribal level,
lish’vatekha‘, and, finally, one can appeal
to the court on the national level, v’shaftu et
‘and they will judge the nation.’ In
other words, this verse describes a court system
with three different levels of appeal: city, tribe,
and nation. A system of appeal and increased
authority would result in a most stable judicial
system. One can move from level to level to appeal
in an orderly, calm, and potentially secure fashion.
The “sh’ of the court can continue, as there is an
established way to appeal and protest. There is an
inherent way to pursue justice.

After setting the tone in the first verse, Moshe
then addressed the judges as a unified body, as
evidenced by the use of the second person singular
verb forms. Every judge stands as one with every
other judge. Thus, in Chapter 16:Verse 19:

‘You shall not cast aside a case for
judgment’ -‘lo tateh

‘You shall not to (specially) recognize
(anyone’s) face’ -‘lo takeer

‘You are not to take a bribe’- ‘v’lo
tekach shochad
‘ (trans.:Everett

Justice is served on an individual basis, i.e., by
every judge’s seriously and honestly approaching
his/her task. Every judge is accountable for
seeking equitable treatment for his/her
constituents. . . As such they serve not only the
cause of equity and justice, but they also serve as
role models to be emulated by the general populace.
Indeed, it is of utmost importance that every member
of the judicial body seeks justice:

‘Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue’ ‘
tzekek, tzedek tirdof.'( 16:20)
In other words, Rabbi Bunam of P’shis’cha
homiletically explained, ‘One should pursue
righteousness only through righteousness.’ (Stone
Ed., p. 1025) Thus, only an honest means can
achieve a righteous end.

So, Moshe looked at the various leaders who would
take positions of power and scrutinized their need
to behave and judge with the pursuit of equity as
their goal. He moved from the judges to the
priests, to the prophets to the kings. The title
and power vary, but the goal must remain consistent:
we must create and dwell in a just society.

Thus, Parashat Shoftim speaks of the need to
develop a just court system, which can respond
systematically and peacably to appeals,
altercations, and struggles. The purpose of the
courts is to restore the calm, the security, and the
consistency that support the process of a just
society. The calm of the ‘sh’ can reign in a
society where laws are knowable, discord is
allowable, and appeal is manageable. In such a
society it is possible to pursue and develop equity
and justice.

Thus, in only two verses, we have an underpinning
and philosophy for a complete judicial system.