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Parshat Shoftim

08/17/2023 02:00:40 PM


Rabbi Hearshen

It seems that everywhere you look people are talking about courts. They’re talking about judges, juries, grand juries and courtrooms. They’re talking about plea deals and about special counsels. I wish I could give provide a reprieve from all this but this week’s Torah portion is called שופטים/Judges and opens with the words “Judges and officers you shall appoint…” The famous verse “Justice… Justice… you shall pursue…” is also from this week’s reading. The portion is mainly about the obligation we have to put a court system in place and how that system shall be administered. I don’t want to talk about the ins and outs of all that’s happening in our country at this time though. I want to talk about the importance of a legal system.

Judaism isn’t a religion meant to only touch a person’s ritual life. By this I mean that Judaism is supposed to encroach on every aspect of a person’s life and no sector should ever be left out of this religious expression. This makes Judaism quite intriguing because it has civil/secular laws for this religious system. In fact, many of the books of Jewish law are dedicated not to Shabbat, holidays and kashrut but to laws about lost objects, murder, theft and so much more. This value is something that allows for us to refrain from compartmentalizing our lives into our Jewish life and our secular life. We’re called upon to live singular lives that apply our religious self to all that we encounter and do.

America’s legal system is based primarily on the outcome and doesn’t always have the process into mind. When a person attempts to murder someone but fails, they’re held to a very different standard than someone who is successful in their pursuit of being a murderer. This leaves me dumbfounded as I don’t understand how someone who simply “screwed up” in being a murderer is rewarded by a lesser sentence than someone who was able to actually commit the murder. We have a similar case in Judaism but for a different reason. The case of the of wood chopper, found in this week’s portion, is about a man who goes out with his friend and is chopping wood and the axe flies out of his hands and/or the head of the axe goes flying off of the handle of the axe and ends up in the head of his friend and his friend dies. That’s the case of the wood chopper. He’s not to be seen as a murderer but as an accidental killer and his punishment is that he must flee to a city of refuge where he will be protected from the deceased’s next of kin who otherwise can kill him for vengeance. On the surface this is basic, the wood chopper accidentally killed his fellow. But what if he loosened to the head of the axe to make it appear like an accident? What if he had told other people he hated this man who now is dead with an axe in his head? What would this mean? Well, it would change things. But what I love about this example is that it paints a picture of Judaism being obsessed with the pursuit of a just society and a just world. It’s obsessed with a world in which people who are wronged cannot go without justice and people who have wronged cannot be punished in too severe a way that does not match the crime.

Justice must be at the root of every society, for without justice, there’s no way for people to live together in this world. Without an understanding of the rules by which we live, we’ll be incapable of holding each other accountable. We need laws and rules in order to work together and to live together. We cannot merely choose which way we want to drive on a road. We need to all agree to follow the traffic laws as determined by our system. We cannot choose to take items from stores without first paying. We need to understand in order for there to be goods to purchase, the people who make them need to make a living in order to continue making them. We cannot live without laws. The laws are, in essence, what enables us to live in community because they set up a structure… a contract… by which each of us needs to live. It’s for this reason that I feel laws are sacred and beautiful. I believe laws provide us with so much more than they take from us. We each need to remember we’re in this together. We each need to remember America is the incredible country it is because each of us agrees to surrender a piece of ourselves for the good of our country. We each need to see that America, and Judaism, are sacred in large part because they’re rooted in law and laws are incredible. 

Sun, June 16 2024 10 Sivan 5784