2004As part of Moses' second discourse to the Israelites, our parsha this week, Shoftim, concentrates on issues of justice and governance as guideposts for the new Israelite society. Limits on power are set forth for judges, kings, religious leaders and prophets. The overwhelming theme is justice – a justice that is applied equally to all, regardless of status. This approach has served as the basis of governance for systems of justice in democratic societies for centuries.
Justice for All
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.
Your Torah Navigator
1. Appointment of judges is put in the hands of the people and their representatives. The power of religious leaders, the kohanim and levi-im, are limited to matters of ritual. Why this early separation of "church and state"?
Tradition regards the appointment of judges as one of the seven "Noahide laws" applicable to all of humanity.
Just as Israel was commanded to appoint courts of law in every district and city, so were the sons of Noah commanded to appoint courts of laws in every district and city. (Talmud Sanhedrin, 56b)
2. Why are the sages so concerned about governance issues in other societies?
The Hatam Sofer (d.1839) notes the following on this verse:
The Holy Blessed One grants lovingkindness and mercy, and we [humanity] grant righteousness and justice.
3. How do we temper righteousness with lovingkindness? Justice with mercy?
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Your Torah Navigator
1. This, arguably, is one of the most famous verses in the Torah. The most obvious question is why the word "justice" (tzedek) is repeated. Would it not have been enough simply to say "pursue justice" in the text?
The Kotzker Rebbe (d.1859) tells us that the first use of the word justice stands for the "means," and the second is for the "ends." Reb Simha Bunim of Peshiskha (d.1765) teaches us the following:
There must be justice involved in the pursuit of justice. One who pursues justice must do so justly – and not falsely.
Moshe Amiel in D'rashot El Ami (1929) suggests:
Justice by itself is not enough, because in the eyes of a human being, there are many different kinds of justice – just as there are many different kinds of truth. Some see justice in a lie, some see lovingkindness in a sin. Everybody has his or her own sense of justice. "Justice, justice you shall pursue" – this is the justice of justice – that is, justice at its source [i.e., not interpretation].
2. What do these commentators have in common with their explanations? What other reasons might you find to explain the repetition of the words?
By Richard Moline, director, KOACH College Outreach
Additional commentaries and text studies on Shoftim at MyJewishLearning.com.