The Responsibility of Mishpat Tzedek
Moshe’s inspired monologue continues into our sedra by broaching the intricate details of the Jewish justice system and war ethics. While many important ideas are mentioned explicitly in the pesukim, many more are only hinted to in the text and expounded by the mefarshim. I believe that one of the most important values of Jewish justice and government, one which the Western world that we live in has yet to embrace, is hinted to in the first passuk of Shoftim:
שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק.
Judges and Officers shall you appoint at all of your gates, which Hashem, your G-d, gives you, by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgement (דברים טו:יח)
Rav Chaim ibn Attar, author of the Ohr HaChaim commentary on Chumash, asks a very reasonable question. The passuk which opens the parsha describes Bnai Yisrael’s responsibility to appoint judges- why is the command to the judges to judge fairly put in that same passuk? Surely the Jewish People aren’t personally responsible for every judgment their leaders make?!
Ibn Attar answers that this is in fact the case. Yes, the people cannot personally ensure that their judiciary always makes fair decisions. But, the people must ensure that they are picking qualified leaders. If Am Yisrael picked a judge who is unable or unwilling to make fair judgement, they are personally responsible for each of his bad decisions. This explains why the passuk juxtaposes the people’s command of picking שופטים and שוטרים with these appointees obligation of judging fairly- if the Jewish People pick representatives that are unable to judge “משפט צדק,” then they have not properly fulfilled the first mitzva of our parsha, and are personally accountable for their appointees’ mistakes and misdeeds.
I believe that this teaching of the author of the Ohr HaChaim is applicable to more than appointed judges- it is also true for any appointed representative leader. By voting for an elected official, we put our trust in their judgment, and therefore also take responsibility for any misjudgment they may make. If we put ourselves behind a leader, and they fail to live up to the high standard of ruling with “משפט צדק,” then every individual who supported this leader is also accountable, and must suffer the consequences for their decision.
This is no more true than in the current leadership situation in Gaza. In 2005, Israel magnanimously gave up the beautiful and fruitful cities of the Gush Katif bloc to the Palestinian Authority, in the hope that the withdrawal would lead to peace with our neighbors. Unfortunately, the people of Gaza decided in 2006 that they did not want peace, by electing the strongly anti-Israel terrorist organization Hamas as their government, scarcely six months after moving in. In the following eight and a half years, leading up to more recent events, Hamas has continually sought battles with Israel, hiding behind its civilian population. As Israel retaliates to defend herself from these unsought attacks, the countries of the world, whose unrelenting pressure led to this crisis in the first place, bash Israel for its violence against the “innocent civilians” of Gaza.
While every life is precious and any death is tragic, we can see from Parshat Shoftim that the casualties in Gaza have been far from innocent. If we make the assumption, however unwise, that 80% of the 2,145 reported fatalities were innocent civilians, as Gazan authorities have reported, and not mostly militants, as Israeli authorities believe, we still cannot forget that they are not innocent. They are the ones who elected Hamas, despite Israeli protests that the organization would start fights and their election would only lead to tragedy. The Palestinians settlers of Gaza were warned that the leaders they wanted to appoint would not rule with “משפט צדק,” but they nonetheless elected Hamas. As ibn Attar, author of the Ohr HaChaim has taught us, they are therefore responsible for their leaders’ actions, and if their appointed leaders put them in the line of fire, we, the Israelis, cannot let them stop us from ensuring a lasting peace in Southern Israel.
Parshat Shoftim contains 97 pesukim, which are equated to the pneumonic סלו”א, roughly translated to the thorn of a rose bush. In order to reach the rose, one may often end up pricking himself on a thorn- any gardener who tries to pick a rose knows of the occupational hazard of getting slightly hurt in the process of doing his job. But the average gardener is not concerned that if he picks the rose and pricks his finger, that he may accidentally break the thorn in the process- that would be silly, because the thorn serves no purpose to the flower, only hurting those who try to pick it. So too, in Gaza, we must not let the thorn of Hamas scare us from pursuing our goal of lasting peace. We especially should not be scared of “hurting the thorn,” because it is far from innocent.
With Hashem’s help, we will merit our government’s and the world’s acknowledgement of the lack of “משפט צדק” in Gaza, so that we can continue Operation Protective Edge and ensure quiet and peace for all of Am Yisrael, very very soon. Shabbat Shalom.