Shoftim - 5779
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
The opening words of this week’s parasha call to us at this time of year:
“Shoftim v’shotrim titein lecha, Judges and overseers you shall set for yourself …” [Deut. 16:18]
In context, the commandment has to do with setting up a fair and just judicial system – a necessary step in building the kind of just community Torah envisions. However, because Hebrew is designed to function on multiple levels of meaning at the same time, there is always more than first meets the eye.
Let’s start with the timing of this portion. Shoftim is always read towards the beginning of the month of Elul – as we begin to prepare for the High Holy Days. This is the time when we are supposed to measure our deeds and right our wrongs so that the New Year will be better than the last. The rabbis use the imagery of a great heavenly book, in which all of our actions are recorded. Through our choices and action, we control what is inscribed, and at this time of year, we have the chance to “edit” the text through the process of teshuvah, of making amends and changing our behavior.
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz focuses on the Hebrew word “lecha” to connect this verse to the beginning of Elul. She notes that the use of “lecha” here is disjointed because it means “you” in the singular rather than plural. How can I, as an individual private citizen, appoint judges and overseers? Perhaps the text means that each and every one of us is responsible for participating in the selection. This fits in as part of a larger pattern of pre-democratic reforms introduced by Torah. However, Rabbi Peretz turns our attention to the eighteenth-century Hasidic commentary Toldot Yaakov Yosef (who was a student of the Baal Shem Tov), eloquently paraphrasing his teaching:
“L’cha, he says, is intended to say: for you, for yourself. As if to say, you should appoint judges within yourself. Every person has the obligation to sit in judgement of him/herself and his/her own actions.”
We judge all of the time. For some of us, it is easier to judge others than ourselves; and some of us hold ourselves to a higher standard and only judge ourselves harshly. The Toldot Yaakov Yosef instructs us to judge ourselves first, and then to use the same yardstick when we judge others. It teaches us to find balance and seek the truth of self-honesty. It urges us to create a fair and just internal justice system.
This is the spiritual work of the month of Elul and the High Holy Days.
Yet there is one more clue from the Hebrew to help us during this holy time. The commandment is to set both judges and overseers for ourselves. The Hebrew word “shotrim” is the same word used in the book of Exodus to describe the overseers or foremen over the slave population. Biblical Scholar Robert Alter notes that it derives its meaning from the root meaning “to write down.” So “shotrim” could refer to the biblical equivalent of courtroom stenographers. However, I’d like to think that this is just another subtle reminder to us that as we each begin our journeys of teshuvah we must not only judge ourselves, but also act in ways that record our deeds in the Book of Life for a good, sweet, and Happy New Year.