Parashat Shoftim: Justice, Death and Uncertainty

Judaism provides for the liminal, confusing period of grief with a series of stages.

Recognition of uncertainty abounds in Parashat Shoftim. The text opens with the instruction to establish shoftim (judges) and shotrim (officers) and goes on to discuss other legitimated forms of authority: priests, kings and prophets. However, beneath these images of order lie distinct anxieties about our ability to know the right thing to do.

Thus we learn twice of the need for multiple witnesses in criminal cases, as one alone cannot be trusted. Higher courts are required because lower courts may be at a loss to decide a case and because the judgment of either court won’t necessarily be honored. Kings may be corrupted by greed, lust and power, while the veracity of prophets tends, unhelpfully, to be evident only later. The Torah acknowledges that even the wise and the righteous may under some conditions be led astray. Uncertainty, perhaps, is the very reason that judges (plural) and officers (also plural) are established with the famous exhortation tzedek, tzedek tirdof — justice, justice shall you pursue. The repetition of the word justice might even imply that the process itself is one requiring review. Truth is a hard thing to determine.

This sense of uncertainty may be very familiar to those in mourning. As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously observed, the preliminary reaction to death is commonly denial. We simply cannot comprehend what has happened. Even after this initial rejection of reality has passed, in the shock of grief many people experience what is called “adjustment disorder.” Everything is unfamiliar, even surreal. We are unmoored from ordinary consciousness.

The death of someone close to us undermines the ground of our emotional life. It radically changes the landscape of our inner world. Frequently, it requires the re-constellation of familial relationships and our roles within them. Loss also introduces a more existential groundlessness: In confronting the death of a loved one, we encounter the fact that we too are mortal. Our entire existence as we know it will end. 

Judaism provides for the liminal, confusing period of grief with a series of stages. The first of these is a period of deliberate ambiguity known as aninut, from a word meaning “under pressure.” This is the time between death and burial when the relatives of the deceased are not yet mourners, but neither are they ordinary people. They are under pressure to organize a funeral and related practical matters, and they are also under profound psychological pressure to adjust to a new, disorienting reality. 

As Rabbi Benjamin Resnick suggests, those in aninut are exempt (patur) from regular religious ritual observance in part to allow them to identify, for a short while, with the dead (niftar). (Exemption and death share the same linguistic root.) This period allows the bereaved to honor the inner death, and perhaps even the urge to follow their loved one to the grave, that those in acute mourning often experience. In this first stage, the deceased and their beloveds are both between worlds.

But as Rabbi Resnick reminds us, entry into the status of mourner is itself a rebirth — initiated by leaving the cemetery through a passageway of comforters redolent of the birth canal. Mourners return home to drink milk, like newborns, and eat eggs, symbols of new life. During the week of shiva, they are like infants, effectively immobilized and cared for by others while they cannot take care of themselves. Through the weeks, months and years that follow, mourners pass through a series of gateways, developmental milestones that induct them into concentric circles of a grief that grows gradually less acute.

For the Hasidic masters, the judges and officers we are told to station at our “gates” are the sentinels of our sense perceptions. They warn us to be extra careful about what we think we know as we interact with the world — even more so in the sensitized and vulnerable wanderings of our grief. Another way to understand these judges and officers is as the (perhaps competing) internal and external gatekeepers of our progress. For even when the outer world of custom or tradition says it’s time to move to the next ring out, in truth that’s something only our inner guide can know. Beneath every semblance of order, uncertainty abounds.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on August 18th, 2023. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.

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