Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Desert in Words: Justice as a Communal Obligation and the Torah Portion of Shoftim

The Torah portion of Shoftim begins with a discussion of the appointment of judges. Below are a few of Rashi's comments on this subject:

18. You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment. 

Judges and law-enforcement officials: Heb. שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים. שֹׁפְטִים are judges who decide the verdict, and שֹׁטְרִים are those who chastise the people in compliance with their order, (who strike and bind [not found in early editions]) with rods and straps, until he [the guilty party] accepts the judge’s verdict.

and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment: Appoint judges who are expert and righteous so that they will judge justly. — [from Sifrei]
 
19. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words. 
You shall not pervert justice: [This is to be understood] according to its apparent meaning.  

you shall not show favoritism: Even during the statement of pleas [by the litigants]. This is an admonition addressed to the judge, that he should not be lenient with one litigant and harsh with the other, [e.g., ordering] one to stand [while allowing] the other to sit, because as soon as one notices that the judge is showing more respect toward his opponent, he cannot plead his case any longer [because he thinks that it will be of no use].

20. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you. 

Justice, justice shall you pursue: Seek out a good court. (Sifrei; San. 32b) 

that you may live, and you possess [the land]: The appointment of fitting judges is sufficient merit to keep Israel alive and settled in their land. — [from Sifrei]

 It's very interesting to note that Rashi establishes obligations not only on those in the government in charge of appointing judges, not only on the judges themselves, but also on the law-enforcement officers as well as on the guilty parties. Last but not least, is the obligation of every litigant in seeking out a good court.

The pursuit of justice is truly a communal mitzvah, applicable to every single person and to the nation as a whole. It therefore comes as no surprise that the reward for appointing fitting judges is also a national one: "sufficient merit to keep Israel alive and settled in their land."
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