Commentary on Parashat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9
Over the past years, the Jewish people have attained certain achievements in the arena of communal responsibility. Among the highlights: our supportive response to those stricken by 9/11, continued aid and new efforts in assisting Argentinean Jewry, and a reinvigorated dedication to Israel and its people.
Yet while reflecting on these achievements could lead one to feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in a job well done, such thoughts in fact are traps for relaxing from the urgent need that continues to demand attention. Parashat Shoftim teaches that we must never fool ourselves into believing that “enough has been done” or that “our work is complete.”
Our portion opens with the commandment to establish a just and effective judicial system. We are to pursue justice vigorously and avoid the corrupting tactics of bribery and favoritism at all costs. This portion, consistent with the entire book of Deuteronomy, serves as a sort of users manual for the Jewish people beginning their path as a nation, in their own homeland, devoted to absolute righteousness.
In fact, even our portion’s name, Shoftim (translated as “judges”), conveys this theme. We are commanded to create a legal system and a society wholly devoted to the values of honest judgment. Individually and communally, we are to become judges, as the Torah states: “Justice, justice you shall pursue; that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Deuteronomy 16:20).
Having established the theme of our Torah portion as one of justice and judgment, let’s turn to its closing remarks. The final section teaches the lessons of the Eglah Arufah, literally translated as the “Broken Heifer.” Although a vague and odd name, this section carries a deep message. When a person is found dead in the wilderness and the killer is not known, the elders of the closest city take a heifer and break its neck as an offering for their forgiveness and to establish their innocence.
In other words, the eglah arufah is a powerful expression of social responsibility. The judges of the closest city are held responsible for the death because it is believed that their community had not provided sufficient care and concern for the individual who perished so tragically. Had they embraced this person with food, shelter, and support, an undignified death could have been avoided. Even if the deceased did not know anyone in the nearest town, it is expected that the community would have established the proper means and methods to care for passing individuals.
In our own times, we have faced this responsibility recently and continue to do so today. We could not stand idly by as the effects of 9/11 unfolded, as the Jews of Argentina suffered in economic ruin, or as the people of Israel faced brutal attacks at every turn. We felt the need to act because we are shoftim, judges, in active pursuit of justice. The assistance that we offered represents our devotion to social responsibility. This mix of justice and caring is expressed in our Torah portion, and each component is a natural extension of the other.
Parashat Shoftim begins with the commandment to enforce justice, and it concludes with the lesson of communal responsibility. Once we assume the role of justice-agents, the neglect of any person is inconceivable. Therefore, while we have responded bravely to the crises that faced us, we cannot rest in satisfaction.
What can we do to help the current and future situation in a way never done before? It is the lesson of “Justice, justice you shall pursue…” that calls our attention to the need present in our communities, just as it is the social responsibility learned from the eglah arufah that demands an unprecedented response. We must tap our resources of creativity and aptitude to produce initiatives that address the unique needs of today’s problems.
Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.