We are living in the midst of a pandemic in which our leaders have the awesome responsibility for so much of our communities’ health and wellbeing.
In some countries, notably Israel and the United States, citizens are challenging those leaders – on the streets and in the courts.
Specifically in these times of crisis, the relationship between leaders,the courts and citizens is an important aspect of a healthy and robust society.
While I believe that leaders deserve respect, it is in this week’s parsha that a Biblical constant is framed
שופטים ושוטרים תתן לך בכל שעריך
You shall appoint shoftim – judges – and “shotrim” in all of your communities
What are “shotrim”? In spoken Hebrew, they are police officers. And the most famous of Torah commentators, Rashi, also understands it that way.
In a modern context, it would speak to the fact that it is the responsibility of the judiciary (shoftim) to ensure the rule of law even on shotrim, law enforcement. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of law enforcement to help implement the laws. We see the vast majority of law enforcement doing so do even when it puts them in harm’s way. Yet the juxtaposition of Shoftim v’Shotrim obligates us to ensure that structures are in place that allow us to call out law enforcement that does not follow its own code of conduct. It is a sacred responsibility to maintain checks and balances between the Shoftim, judges, and Shotrim, law enforcement.
Yet many commentators and Midrashim translate “shotrim” not as police officers but rather as “leaders”. According to this interpretation, the verse reads: You shall appoint judges and leaders in all of your communities.
The Torah’s juxtaposition of “judges” with “leaders” wishes to accentuate that it is in the best interest of any society even with the most regal of leaders to have checks and balances. That was the role of the Biblical prophet with the leader of the Sanhedrin and the King.
Government requires structures that allow for a balance of power, if we are to build a just and moral society.
In such a society, citizens have the right – and I believe even the responsibility – to respect their leaders, but, when necessary, to question them. The judiciary and government leaders are שלוחי דרחמנא – emissaries of God to help shape a more perfect society.
The judiciary serves as a check on the power of leadership, ensuring that it remains responsive and accountable .
It is telling that the continuation of our verse continues with the words,
אשר ה’ א-להיך נותן לך
“…that Hashem your God is giving you.”
Through these words, the Torah reminds us that as God gives us the Land, it is in the context of building a society in which no single branch of government holds all of the power.
We have been given the responsibility of creating a just society. I applaud the work of hard working selfless civil servants. Without them we would destroy each other.
But let us never forget that only by creating a civil society – embracing the concept of justice and compassion, Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – we will truly be deserving of inheriting the land that God has given us.