“Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Shoftim–the name means “judges” or “magistrates,” and this parasha deals essentially with the ethical and administrative standards that are necessary in order to provide the Jewish community with a suitable judicial structure.

Having such a “legalistic” name, one would expect parashat Shoftim to be replete with many rules and regulations. While Parashat Shoftim does contain 41 of the 613 mitzvot-14 positive commandments and 27 negative commandments–it does not, however, rate among the five top parashiot in terms of numerical abundance of mitzvot. Parashat Shoftim does, nevertheless, set the tone for the entire judicial structure of Israel. And what a remarkable structure that is!

Although the judicial structure of the ancient Israelites started out as a somewhat tribal system, over the centuries it rapidly evolved into a highly developed centralized structure. As we see in parashat Shoftim, the basic rules, structure and philosophic principles that are at the core of Jewish jurisprudence were found and implemented at its very beginning.

In a revolutionary series of verses, parashat Shoftim immediately sets forth the clear mandate of the Jewish judicial system (Deuteronomy 16:18): “Shoftim v’shoht’rim tee’ten leh’cha b’chol sh’ah’reh’chah, ah’sher Hashem eh’lo’keh’chah no’tayn l’chah lish’vah’teh’chah, v’shahf’too et hah’ahm mish’pat tzedek. You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes in all the settlements that the Lord, your G-d, is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. Verses 19-20 continue: You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord, your G-d, is giving you.

More than 3,300 years ago, with these dramatic declarations, the Torah places the ultimate judicial administrative power in the hands of the people rather than in the authority of the king. In fact (Deuteronomy 17:18-20), the king is commanded to write for himself a Torah scroll, to heed the Torah’s teachings and is reminded that his decisions are to be controlled by the religious statutes. Thus we see that justice for the Jewish people is not a simple tribal matter, but rather an issue of national concern. It is, therefore, not at all surprising, that the Jewish judicial system, as it developed over the centuries, resulted in King Jehosephat, in the 9th century B.C.E., placing judges in all fortified cities of Judah and creating a main tribunal in Jerusalem (II Chronicles 19:5-11).

While Moses, with the help of G-d (Numbers 11:16-29), chooses the 70 elders who constitute the High Court of Israel, our parasha (Deuteronomy 17:8-13) declares that the Supreme Court is to be the final authority in both religious and civil matters.

Although the Torah provides for a temporal power to be vested in the hands of a king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), when G-d instructed the prophet Samuel to crown Saul as the first king of Israel, Samuel himself expressed great misgivings (1 Samuel 8), because he felt that the Ultimate King of the people was G-d, not a mortal.

As previously noted, although the king had supreme authority in matters of life and death, the king’s powers were also restricted. The Supreme Court of Israel, known as the Great Sanhedrin and composed of 71 sages, needed to ratify the appointments of the High Priest and the king. Similarly, the king required the High Court’s permission to engage in any non-obligatory wars, and if the king wished to suspend personal rights, he needed to obtain the confirmation of the Sanhedrin. In effect, the Torah establishes the first “constitutional monarchy,” and introduces the unique idea of a king ruling “by the grace of G-d.” The idea of a king subservient to G-d is dramatically demonstrated by numerous examples throughout Jewish history, such as when the prophet Nathan confronted King David concerning the King’s behavior with Batsheba, and Elijah the prophet confronted the wicked King Ahab concerning the rampant presence of idolatry. In effect, in Judaism, the Torah serves as the constitution, and G-d is the King of kings.

The essence of Israel’s judicial philosophy is distilled in the rather dazzling verse in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Tzedek tzedek tir’dohf,” Justice, justice shall you pursue. No nation in the world has invested more effort to make certain that law was equitably administered in all parts of its society than did the Jewish people. The pursuit of justice through Jewish law became so much a part of Jewish life that religious life itself came to be known as halacha, “the way to go,” or the way to live. By paying meticulous attention to the minutiae of Jewish law, the Jewish people fulfill G-d’s will.

Perhaps the essence of Jewish law is best summed up in the edifying statement by Rabbi Bachya ben Asher (1263-1340, Spanish Biblical commentator), who stated that the double emphasis on the word “tzedek, tzedek“–justice, justice shall you pursue–implies that justice must be pursued under all circumstance, whether the individual profits or loses, whether in word or in action, whether to Jew or non-Jew. In effect, it means that no unjust means may be used to secure justice (Rabbenu Bachya, Commentary on Deut. 16:20).

Many of the legal ideas and values expressed in parashat Shoftim have long ago been incorporated into legal systems throughout the world. We need to appreciate the legal revolution that the Torah initiated so long ago, and that continues in our own lifetime, to the great benefit of all humankind.

May you be blessed.