Menachem Creditor

Justice Amidst Freedom’s Allure (Shoftim)

Parashat Shoftim, nestled within the middle of the book of Deuteronomy, offers us a poignant lesson from Moses. He stands at the threshold of the promised land, aware that he won’t be journeying with us into this new chapter. With the urgency of a sage imparting essential wisdom, Moses seeks to encapsulate the pivotal teachings we must heed.

This week’s Parsha, named for “judges” and “justice,” speaks directly to the challenge of maintaining a just and cohesive society. Moses, wise in his understanding of human nature, recognizes that when groups of people coexist for an extended period, particularly in freedom, imbalances can emerge. This prophetic insight remains relevant in our own complex world.

After traversing the desert for four decades, we stand on the precipice of the promised land. Here, the opportunity for self-determination and the complexities of territorial acquisition loom large. Amid these considerations, a vital question emerges: how will we navigate this path once Moses is no longer by our side?

The Parsha begins with a command to establish shoftim and shotrim, judges and officers. The message is clear: we require judges to interpret the law and enforcement officers to uphold justice. Moses understands that when a community is granted freedom, it becomes essential to manage the potential conflicts arising from differing pursuits, even those that might undermine neighbors’ well-being.

Moses vividly recalls the narrative from the book of Exodus, when Jethro advised him to delegate the task of judgment to others. A lone judge overseeing the multitude of cases could be overwhelming. This lesson of shared responsibility and representative justice resonates with the idea of evolving systems that we grapple with today, such as the judicial structure in modern Israel.

Yet, inherent challenges persist. Competing claims and differing narratives naturally emerge in any society. Moses acknowledges that disputes will arise that the current judicial structure might not have addressed. In such cases, the instruction is to consult the existing judges. However, Moses recognizes the necessity of a secondary layer: an enforcement system that ensures the rule of law prevails.

This dynamic tension between justice and enforcement continues to be pertinent. Current events in Israel illustrate the complexities of a justice system, as ongoing debates about its composition and alignment with societal values spark considerable discourse.

The Torah’s wisdom in foreseeing these dilemmas remains striking. Moses imparts a timeless truth: without a foundation of justice, society falters. The central command to “love your neighbor as yourself” underscores the imperative of fairness and compassion, especially when tempted by freedom’s allure.

In subsequent Jewish history, the early rabbis recognized the significance of societal harmony. Seeking the welfare of the government, they understood, prevents individuals from devouring each other. Justice is the adhesive that binds us together, fostering kindness and goodwill.

As we now find ourselves in the third Jewish Commonwealth, we confront the imperfections of our judicial systems. While no system can be flawless, we must engage in the ongoing work of improving them. It’s essential to recognize that justice may not always align with our preferences, but it remains a cornerstone of civil society.

Democracy, as we understand it today, wasn’t in Moses’ purview. However, the parallels between Parashat Shoftim and our world are unmistakable. Disagreements are inevitable, a hallmark of human existence. The challenge lies in respecting diverse voices even when consensus eludes us. The sacred realm of justice is our sanctuary when differences arise, offering a framework to resolve conflicts and provide answers.

Embracing this wisdom, we honor both our ancestors and future generations. As we strive to construct a harmonious society, let’s remember the legacy of Parashat Shoftim. We may not achieve perfection, but with mutual respect and commitment, we can forge a path towards justice and unity. Let us engage in profound learning this week, singing our way into the future, ever mindful of the Beloved Community we aspire to create together.

About the Author
Rabbi Menachem Creditor serves as the Pearl and Ira Meyer Scholar in Residence at UJA-Federation New York and was the founder of Rabbis Against Gun Violence. An acclaimed author, scholar, and speaker with over 2 million views of his online videos and essays, he was named by Newsweek as one of the fifty most influential rabbis in America. His 31 books and 6 albums of original music include "A Year of Torah," the global anthem "Olam Chesed Yibaneh" and the COVID-era 2-volume anthology "When We Turned Within." He and his wife Neshama Carlebach live in New York, where they are raising their five children.
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