Parashat Shof’tim speaks of the responsibilities and obligations of community leaders – religious and civic. Its verses cover this as it pertains to magistrates, rulers, priests, and prophets.
The parasha helps more to delineate the limitations of these various authorities than it does to define their roles. Kings are exhorted to study and know Torah, to not amass too much wealth or too many wives. (Well, that one seemed to go by the wayside, didn’t it?) Interestingly, the establishment of a monarchy is an entirely optional choice for the people. We could spend a whole musing on just that, but let’s save that for another time. (However, I’ll give you this to think about – if, as so many of us believe, the Torah, and particular Sefer D’varim/Deuteronomy was a later addition, and, as in other parts of the Torah, it contains text meant to justify the existence of the monarchy with the foresight of hindsight – or is that hindsight of foresight? – why then include text that says the monarchy is optional? I can think of lots of answers, but I’ll allow you to the chance to play around with that on your own.)
The verses referring to the priests are almost wholly about how, being non-landholders, they are to be supported by the community. There is, of course, an underlying assumption that those chosen for service to G”d are to be held to a standard of behavior and ethics simply by virtue of having been chosen for this honor/obligation. Which is probably why it is left unsaid. Or is it? More for you to ponder on your own!
Finally, we are given the (rather simplistic) test of whether a prophet is a true prophet. If what they prophesy comes true, they are a true prophet. Again, another subject that could occupy an entire musing, if not an entire book, but we’ll press over it today.
The opening verses of Shof’tim (18-19) themselves present a bit of a puzzle. They direct the people to appoint judges in their settlements (v 18.) However, in the following verse, 19, it does not use the pronoun “they,” instructing “them” (i.e. the judges) to judge fairly and not take bribes, as one might expect after the exhortation to appoint judges (and as we read elsewhere in Torah.) Instead, it uses the pronoun “you” in its second person masculine singular form.)
לֹא־תַטֶּ֣ה מִשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים וְלֹא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם׃
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. (JPS)
What are we to glean from this? Perhaps it is teaching us that any of us, at any given time, could be in a position in which we have to judge, and we must all, as the Torah tells us, pursue justice. Perhaps it also teaches us that we all have an obligation to insure that anyone judging (or ruling, or priestifying, or prophesying) is following those same principles of pursuing justice.
Thus the answer to the question Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – Who watches the watchers? – is, to begin with, us – each of us individually, and all of us collectively. We cannot simply appoint judges (or even Kings) and allow them to proceed unmonitored. Though we do not appoint prophets or priests, they, too, are subject to the watchful eyes of the people. Prophets, the parasha teaches, are provided as needed by G”d. Priests are also G”d-provided (or G”d-ordained, or, as the cynic in me would say, presented as a gift to the family/tribe of Moshe.) Provided/ordained by G”d or not, they are human, and need to be held to account.
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (JPS)
That is our obligation, our duty, our responsibility. We must watch over those whom we appoint to dispense justice in our name. Do we even need to ask who watches us?
©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha: