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The next time we read this Torah portion is August 22, 2020

Parshat Shoftim

Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

In this parsha, we learn about the justice system. Kings are warned not to have too many possessions and that they must always travel with a Torah.

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What The Bible Says About Law Enforcement

In Parshat Shoftim, we're commanded to appoint police officers, shotrim. But there are strange parallels between these officers and another set of shotrim: the abusive officers in Egypt. What are these parallels trying to tell us? Watch and find out.
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Parshat Shoftim Summary

Shoftim Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

Parshat Shoftim opens with a discussion of the justice system. "Justice, justice you shall pursue!" Moses famously instructs the people. How are the people supposed to go about ensuring justice? For one thing, they are supposed to establish specific leaders, like shoftimor "judges," who provide answers to difficult legal questions – be they "civil" or "criminal" matters – and shotrim, or "officers," who help to enforce the law.

Moses reminds those leaders that they are charged with upholding justice: they can't take bribes, show favoritism, or engage in any other kind of corruption. A few verses later, Moses talks about the law of appointing a king to rule over the people. The job of the king is to uphold God's law – not to act as a supreme human ruler who somehow takes the place of God. The king has to write a Torah scroll and carry it with him at all times. And soon after that, Moses engages in a discussion of another class of leaders: the kohanim, the priests.

What follows is a seemingly somewhat random list of laws, including:

  1. Do not engage in divination or other occult/idolatrous practices
  2. Do not be a false prophet or listen to false prophets
  3. Establish cities of refuge for murderers (by the way, if you are interested in a fascinating study of these laws, and how they might be closely linked to one of the earliest stories in the Torah, click here)
  4. Two witnesses are required for capital punishment
  5. Do not bear false witness

In reading through this list, you might have noticed that some of these laws sound familiar. We don't just mean that these laws appear elsewhere in the Torah, since we often find in Deuteronomy that Moses repeats laws that were issued earlier – like the law about establishing cities of refuge for murderers, which we already heard about in Parshat Masei and Parshat Va'etchanan. We're thinking of something a bit more specific... that these verses about avoiding idolatry and only serving the one God, and not bearing false witness, and laws having to do with the rotze'ach, the murderer, we've heard them all before in one place, in one of the most famous passages of the Torah: the Ten Commandments. Now, is it just a coincidence? Or can the rest of the Ten Commandments also be found here, hiding, in this parsha? And if so, why?? Imu Shalev and David Block ask and answer that question in their two-part video: "Is There Spiritual Guidance Within Our Legal System?"

Moses then returns to the topic of the shotrim, those "officers" that we heard about at the beginning, the ones that we're supposed to appoint alongside the shoftrim, the judges – and when he does, it's to describe a very odd ritual. Whenever the people are going out to battle against an enemy, the Kohen (priest) comes out to make a speech, and then the shotrim come out to make a speech. The Kohen tries to instill everyone with courage for the upcoming battle — but what do the shotrim do? Look at what they say:

"What man is there who has built a new house and has not [yet] inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man inaugurate it.
And what man is there who has planted a vineyard, and has not [yet] redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man redeem it.
And what man is there who has betrothed a woman and has not [yet] taken her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man take her.
What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, that he should not cause the heart of his brothers to melt, as his heart." 
(Deuteronomy 20:5-8)

The shotrim are telling people to go home! They're saying: "I know that you're supposed to be joining in this military battle, and the nation really needs everyone right now – but we're going to let you off the hook and send you home. Why? Because we recognize that you have a compelling personal reason for going home, a reason that somehow trumps the value of your joining in the battle. You built a home but never lived in it, you betrothed a woman but never married her, or you planted a vineyard but never harvested its fruit. Or you're just plain scared, and we're afraid that you're going to infect the rest of the troops with your nervousness. Whatever the reason: go home."

You read a passage like this and you find yourself wondering: What makes these people so unique? Why is their individual safety more important than the communal need? Rabbi Fohrman grapples with this question in his video, "The Significance of Saving Private Ryan."

One thing is for certain: this is not what you would expect the nation's leaders to say on the eve of battle, and certainly not from the shotrim, the "officers," the people whose explicit job is to enforce the law. Why does the Torah use the word shotrim to describe these people who seem to be doing the opposite of enforcing the law? In his video "The Torah's Police Officers," Daniel Loewenstein answers that question, arguing that through this whole ritual with the shotrim and the Kohen, God is actually communicating to us a sort of political theory about how Jewish leaders ought to lead: how to balance the interest of the individual with that of the common good.

Next, the parsha instructs us to try to seek peaceful resolutions to conflicts with our enemies but if a military conflict can't be avoided, then we are supposed to annihilate them completely – but always to leave the fruit trees standing. And finally, Parshat Shoftim ends with a discussion of the laws of the eglah arufah, the heifer whose neck is broken: a strange procedure by which the kohanim and the elders of a city respond to an unsolved murder.