Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
How the Torah calls us to an extreme pursuit of justice, and towards an abhorrence of corruption
Many of you know that when I get into a parsha, sometimes I get stuck for weeks even. I feel like I can’t move on until I really grasp the lesson, and take it to heart. Every year this parsha stops me, and always about these very points. Even though it is last weeks parsha, I want to share this you. I would love to do a more complete study at some point, but a new Shabbat is coming upon us so I gotta get on with this weeks parsha now!
Last week, in Parshat Re’eh we began to see some interesting language being laid out for us. Several times we read in the text that the children of Israel are to do what is right in the eyes of G-d, by following after all of these mitzvot that He has commanded us. The first thing we learned was that when the people entered into the land there would be a chosen spot appointed, and worship would be centralized there. We later read of the mitzvot against idolatry and the command to destroying all traces of the false deities of the inhabitants. These many local place of worship and home altars were to be destroyed; as the children of Israel too would be forbidden to participate in private worship,thus offerings were to only be offered at the Temple once it was established. Then the parsha also goes into the details of the shelosh regalim – the three pilgrimage festivals. Of course lumped up in between there we were also presented with the mitzvot relating to kashrut, tithes, etc.
But early on we were given with blunt words from Mosheh (Moses) regarding how things were going to change once they went into the land:
“You shall not do all that we do
here this day,
everyman what is right in his own eyes.
For you have net yet come to the rest
and the inheritance that Hashem your G-d
| Lo ta’asun k’chol asher anachnu osim
| poh yayom.
| ish kol hayashar b’einav.
| Ki lo batem od atah el-hamenuchah
| v’el ha-nach’alah asher Hashem Elohecha
| noten lach.
Though in the preceding verses up to this Mosheh tries to soften up the message, saying that they are being commanded to do this so that they will be able to rejoice and celebrate together that G-d blesses them at whatever they set their hand to. It was to unify the people, and provide a space for everyone to celebrate before G-d. Though you must understand that this most certainly would have been a contentious issue to people, maybe even considered as religious intolerance. But notice that when public worship was possible, private worship was not to be allowed. It was so necessary that people be in relationship with one another and responsible to each other that we were given commandments and seasons were it was compulsory for people to go up to the House of G-d. Both as individuals with life cycle events and corporately as a nation during holidays, they were mandated to ascend to the congregation of the people.
It was not just religious observance was going to centralized, so too the judicial system would also come to rest in Jerusalem. This would serve as a capital in all respects. We begin to read of that in this weeks portion, Parshat Shoftim.
This parsha is going to go into great detail about justice, and the rules for establishing justice. But it doesn’t just deal with the concept of justice in general and on the national stage, it’s also going to establish a system for adjudicating justice locally. Thus we read in the opening words of our parsha:
“Judges and officers
shall you provide at all the gates [of the cities]
which Hashem your G-d shall give you,
so each tribe shall be judged with
| Shoftim veshotrim
| titen-lecha bechol-she’areicha
| asher Hashem Eloheicha noten lecha
| lishvateicha veshafetu et-ha’am
| mishpat tzedek.
So our parsha opens with the word shoftim – which means judges, which is very appropriate because the bulk of this parsha is going to be about the rules that relate to the judges and officers; including priests, kings, and local magistrates. This Torah is very demanding of those in authority. This is what is expected of the leaders:
“You shall not twist judgment,
you shall not respect persons,
and you shall not take a bribe
for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise
and perverts the words of the righteous.”
| “Lo-tateh mishpat
| lo takir panim
| velo-tikach shochad
| ki hashochad ye’aver einei chachamim
| visalef divrei tzadikim.”
Now this is very clear, this cuts right at the heart of old-world and small-minded thinking that is left in the children of Israel. Like all people who come from the old way of doing things, favoritism and bribes is the societal norm. But here they are being told this is forbidden, because even the wise and righteous will find their judgment perverted by such things. But it doesn’t just outlaw bribes, it uniquely outlaws showing favoritism. It actually informs one that “lo takir panim / you shall not recognize a face;” that you should deal with the issue at hand and not even give consideration to the person for whom the case is heard. But takir also means to become acquainted, to know, to become familiar with, or to be introduced to. One also must not be chummy with the people related to the case or they cannot rule appropriately.
Then our parsha gives us some of the most famous and lovely words in all of the Torah:
“Justice, justice shall you pursue
that you may live
and occupy the land
that Hashem your G-d gives you.”
| Tzedek tzedek tirdof
| lema’an tichieh
| veyarashta et-ha’aretz
| asher Hashem Eloheicha noten lach.”
These three words “tzedek tzedek tirdof / justice justice shall our seek” are such a central concept to the Jewish people that these words are known the world over as a battle cry of Jewish progressives. Though one may not know any other Hebrew words, these words have been made infamous even in the United State where they were proclaimed by Jewish people who fought for abolition of slavery, woman’s suffrage, child labor laws and civil rights.
Interesting statement, to tirdof tzedek – to pursue justice. This word tirdof means to seek and pursue, yes. It literally means to chase after. But normally this word is used very differently in spoken Hebrew, more often it means to haunt or trouble a person, to chase them down. Why chase them? Normally one does this to oppress or persecute a person, so they are on the run! For this reason to be nirdaf in Hebrew means to be persecuted or to be oppressed. Instead our Torah tells us to do the exact opposite, it tells us to go running and chasing after people in order to do righteousness and provide them justice; so that they may live, and so we can all live more securely. It’s not good enough that we don’t go after people to persecute them like it’s an inquisition, instead we are commanded to go out and seek people out in order to show extreme justice and compassion to those who are deprived of it!
Justice. Not just any sort of justice, but tzedek tzedek; said twice, which is the classical way of emphasizing something important that should not be missed. We are to seek to fill this world with perfect justice; tzedek, which simply means what is right and correct. Again we are reminded that we are to show correct judgment to all people, indiscriminately. We are not be crooked or biased people.
Here in this parsha there is established a system of judgment were appointed magistrates and elders are assigned through out the local towns, cities, and tribal regions that operated as almost like individual states. They are to meet at the local gates, which in this society is the primary marketplace for all forms of business and social interaction. The bigger the city is the more gates they have to accommodate the traffic, thus the more judges and officers they city also had as they were placed at all the gates. One should not have to go far to find justice, it should be as accessible as going to buy groceries! And it should be proclaimed in the open, for all the people to witness and not in private back-room dealings.
The House of Hewn Stone: The Roots of the Sanhedrin
In this parsha we begin by discussing the local judicial system. But this was not the only branch of government that was established to oversee the law. Earlier in the Torah, in Parshat Yitro we learned that Mosheh was challenged by his father-in-law Yitro to appoint judges because the task was too big to for him to hear all the issues of the people himself. He presented him with a system of selecting elders and judges that were given a certain jurisdiction, and then judges set over larger regions still; like courts of appeal, increasing in jurisdiction as one progresses up the legal system. The lower courts should hear the minor cases, and the major ones that were too hard to deal with would be brought to him. This made good sense to Mosheh, who we read listened and did just as Yitro said (see Exodus 18). Actually, Mosheh at one point totally broke down. And after much complaining from the people he admits that being responsible for everything and all of them is too much, and he even asks G-d to do him a favor and kill him because he’s even disgusted with himself. We read that Hashem approved the idea of appointing judges in his place, and commanded him to implement it accordingly:
“And Hashem said to Mosheh:
Gather for Me seventy men
of the elders of Israel
that you know to be
the wise men of the people
and their officials
and bring them to the Tent of Meeting
that they may stand there with you.”
| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe
| esfah-li shiv’im ish
| miziknei Yisra’el
| asher yadata ki-hem
| ziknei ha’am
| velakachta otam el-Ohel Mo’ed
| vehityatzvu sham imach
So here, at the Ohel Moed – the place where Mosheh normally heard all the issues and concerns of the people, as well as made all his judgments from – he was no longer to stand alone, but with seventy men standing with him in an official capacity. These were not priests or sacred people such as a Levite, they were people of all the tribes of Israel. Mosheh was to choose these leaders, thus it was required that he know them and their reputation personally.
To be an elder – a zakein – in this sense does not necessarily mean that one is old man with a zakan – a beard. But this is the image one normally gets, even in the Talmud where the term usually means ones grandfather. But in actuality this term means something more than one who has aged; it can often means one who is aged, thus in everyday speech this often can mean a person who is old-fashioned, or as we say old-schooled. They are a wise person from having some life experience under their belt. Thus to be a zakein also means one that is a wise man and or a sage.
Thus we read of the setting up of the assembly of the elders at the Ohel Moed – which would later be incorporated into the Beit HaMikdash – The Temple, as the Lishkat haGazit – The Chamber of Hewn Stone. This body which was established by Mosheh at the command of G-d would later become known as the Sanhedrin, who functioned in the capacity of hearing the most complex and high-profile cases. Most often the difficulty in trying these cases was because they dealt with the most extreme cases and people. As we will see the situations presented to us in this parsha concern false prophets, rebellious leaders, and cities of idolatry. Mosheh was not alone in dealing with these issues any more. G-d promised to speak to him from there, and the people would also be given some of the spiritual mantel that only Mosheh wore up until now so that they help share the responsibility and he not go at it alone. G-d and his fellow man would advise him.
But there is one point that is often missed by people when we read this. It does not say that they will be given a spirit like Mosheh, that would suggest that they would be like minded to Mosheh. No, instead we read that G-d would atzal – delegate spiritual responsibility to the elders. Nor does it say that they will just stand there merely supporting him, it says that they will “vehityatsvu sham imach / and they will present themselves there with you.” To hityatzeiv not only means to present oneself, but it also means to face, or to stand before one. Mosheh as he heard these cases would be advised by these elders who also would present Mosheh with issues and advice, each being wise in many matters and able to contribute. Mosheh and any successive leader that headed this body would would listen to these 70 sages, and they in tern would oversee the legislative process of enacting the Torah law. Not even Mosheh was above the law, nor able to act willfully he was kept in check by the elders and G-d. In this sense we can understand why the word hityatzeiv can also mean to stabilize. They didn’t just support him to help from falling over, their functions was one of bringing moderation and balance to the legal system.
In this parsha Mosheh now lays out how this is going to effect the body of elders and the people’s relationship to them once they are established within the Promised Land. It also gives us some pretty good insight into how things worked during those days as very little changed, the system was just incomplete before the nation was established.
Now for the sake of time I will paraphrase some of the text to bring us up to speed on how this system functioned. When there was a cases that arose that were too difficult such as judgment “between blood and blood” (presumably capital cases), between conflicting laws and please, causes of assault, plague like epidemics arise, or when there is controversy boiling over in that place, they are to get up and go the place G-d will choose (it’s contentiously refereed to this way because Jerusalem is not yet the capital, as they have not even entered into the actual country yet). They are to approach the Levite priests and unto the judges that are there in those days to ask questions, and the judges will declare the sentence to the people. The case may already be tried, but this is in place for cases in which there is dispute or a ruling of capital punishment. To show impartiality and settle the issue once and for all, the approval of a supreme court was prescribed for judgment to be sentenced and then carried out.
Like I said, it doesn’t sound a whole lot different from Mosheh’s style of governing, but it does assure the people that they will still have continuity of government that they have depended on. Even though it will change, it will still be able to serve their needs in the same way. In fact just in case anyone questions if they have to listen to these leaders since they aren’t like Mosheh who spoke with and for G-d we read the following words:
“And you shall do according to the sentence
which they shall inform you
from the place which Hashem shall choose
and you shall observe to do
all that they shall instruct you.”
| Ve’asita al-pi hadavar
| asher yagidu lecha
| min-hamakom hahu asher yivchar Hashem
| veshamarta la’asot
| kechol asher yorucha.
The people are going to be able to approach the judges and know that they represent G-d just as much as Mosheh who stood and spoke with G-d’s Presence in a mere tent, as their leaders would be instructing them from the House of G-d where His Presence dwells. They were not inventing the law, their function was to yigidu, to inform people of the law in laying down the sentence. So this system would continue until in function until the 3rd century CE; seventy plus one judges just as in the days of Mosheh Rabbeinu – Moses our teacher
But their job went much further than just being judges. And this is where the role of the Sanhedrin goes far beyond being just a senate or an over sized supreme court. As wise men, as sages and as men of great experience, their brilliance was to find its use for more than just laying down the law. Yes it was in their capacity as judges, but here as a mature institution we see that a Sanhedrin goes one step further and is to instruct the people. The job of the sages should also be to teach you (yorucha).
“According to the Torah
which they shall interpret
and according to the law
they shall tell you,
you shall do.
Do not deviate from the sentence
which they shall declare to you
to the right hand, or to the left.”
| Al-pi haTorah
| asher yorucha
| asher-yomru lecha
| lo tasur min-hadavar
| asher yagidu lecha
| yamin usmol.
We are to follow through with the commands given to us by the leaders of the Sanhedrin because they are hereby being charged to interpret and legislate law. They are to determine the law according to the Torah, not that of their own will. Because they are commanding people to be in obedience of the Torah, and also because the consequences of failing to follow through results in judgment, the people must be properly instructed so that it is clear and there is no misunderstanding. As person is often ignorant of what is correct it is commanded that for all capital cases there must be warning first be given before being sentenced to judgment. As we see here this warning also comes with instruction in how they are to practice the Torah correctly. Thus if a person breaks the law from here on out it is out of willfulness and not merely a case of ignorance.
The Presumptious Man: The Willful Sinner
This point of willful sinning, in rebellion to the Torah and the sages must be understood in order for us to make sense of the next few verses. It is also essential in understanding the Talmudic interpretation of these verses.
“And the man who does presumptuously
and does not listen to the priest
who ministers there before
Hashem your G-d,
even to a judge, that man shall die
and thereby exterminating evil in Israel.”
| Veha’ish asher-ya’aseh vezadon
| levilti shmoa el-hakohen
| ha’omed lesharet sham
| et-Hashem Eloheicha
| o el-hashofet umet ha’ish hahu
| uvi’arta hara miYisra’el.
The key word here that is difficult for many to understand is the word vezadon – to be presumptuous, as it says in most of the classic English Bible translations. The word itself is quite rare, used only a handful of times in the scriptures. We can only come to this understanding of the word by interpreting in accordance with tradition, as in the Talmud where we find that this means a man who is actually a judge or elder who acts in rebellion to the sentence of the Sanhedrin. This makes sense because the Sanhedrin was not a court to try cases but to interpret if the law was prescribed correctly and appropriately, therefore only other judges and officials would be heard by the Sanhedrin. Therefore it is interpreted by the great rabbis that as insinuated by the text, even a man who is a judge shall be executed if he goes against the law. No one is above the law, or too good for capital punishment.
But the crime that he is understood to be guilty of in this case is not enacting the sentence of the elders. Thus the archaic 14th century word presumptuously does have a purpose, one that is missed today; it means to overstep the one’s bounds, to take liberties regarding something. In this case it is someone overstepping their authority and/or taking liberties regarding their application of law that goes against what was commanded them by the sentencing court. Instead of laying down Torah law they insist on their own will and thus distort the commands of G-d. We will see this same term used in Deut. 18:20 regarding the prophet who speaks presumptuously in G-d’s Name, though he was not commanded to say anything. So too is the judge that twists the law, they speak what they want instead of what is right. They both are to be executed
Now one might wonder how it could be so, that leaders and officers of the people could be guilty of such things. The Talmud contends this only applies to members of the Sanhedrin who were able to bring issues before them to be heard and thus reject; whereas I could suggest that this means any man at all by a plain reading of the text. None the less the position of the Talmud is true for their usage, as the Sanhedrin did not make habit of trying individuals but only other leaders that did not act in accordance with the ethics of their profession. They were not to be lenient towards them, but punish according to the full extent of the law even if it meant death. We are told doing this would exterminate evil in Israel, in all levels of society. So the next verse reads in summary:
“And when the entire people hear of this
they will fear
and do not more presumptuously.”
| Vechol-ha’am yishme’u
| velo yezidun od.
Or as we can understand this word now, they shall not act rebelliously anymore. By enacting judgment against those in authority the people were also taught to not act willfully and out of rebellion. This type of attitude is something that is not just found in the common man, it is even found in the most learned and men of status; maybe even more so, some might suggest. The term zid in the purest sense of the word means to boil over, to seethe; we see this used of when describing the lentil soup made by Yaakov and given to Eisav. (Gen. 25:29) But figuratively when used to describe people it means to be proud, and thus unbending (see Neh. 9:16,29; Jer 50:29). It can also be used to describe how a person acts towards someone else, as in Nehemiah 9:10 we see that G-d enacted judgment against Egypt because they “ki hatzidu alechem,” meaning they acted arrogantly towards the children of Israel. The teachers and sages of the Sanhedrin understood that such attitudes were surely more prevalent in the ruling class, and not nearly as much among the humble average citizen. And their actions had greater consequence and must be treated according.
However, I should point out that the Torah itself does say that all people, even the common man, was able to be proud and arrogant. But why do do rabbis focus its application to leadership instead of all people? It is because they understood their place. Their decisions as leaders had greater consequence, effecting many lives not just their own. And when the laws was applied to the great then even the modest man clearly understand there was no way he is above the law himself and thus will become too afraid to willfully do evil anymore.
Again, I stress. This negative attitude could be found in any class person. Anyone could seethe in their own pride and become arrogant and haughty in the themselves as to rebel against the authority of the law. We should all be careful to not let our pride and arrogance arise, letting it bubble over to the point that we show contempt for the law.
To have a healthy society it is essential that the people respect the law, and this could only be if it applied to everyone. Whereas the law does not play favorites, it does however take into account the status of the individual in order to hold them to a higher level of accountability. This is contrary to the norm among the nations to instead provide immunity for officials. In this sense the Torah is very unique.
In having a system of accountability to others and not just doing what is right in one’s eyes, there was a mechanism for checking to make sure that a verdict was correct. But even more so it demanded one of the virtues of true justice, that at some final point people must accept the sentence of the law and end their claim once and for all; not to assume they are the only one that is right. I believe this is the wrong of being presumptuous; being sure in your mind you’re the only one that is right.
- Parshat Shoftim (2013)
- Parshat KiTeitzei (2011)
- Parshat Eikev (2013)
- Parshat Eikev (2012)
- Parshat Eikev (2011)
- The Development of the Transmission of the Oral Law