Torah Portion: Shoftim(Judges)D’Varim(Deut.) 16:18-21:9

Haftorah Reading: Isaiah 51:12-53:12

Our Torah portion today, Shoftim, is always read on the first Shabbat of the month of Elul. This month is the month leading up to the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.  Therefore, it is considered to be the perfect time to reflect on our lives. It is an opportune time to consider those things that may have been overlooked and need to be set straight between us and the G-d of the universe. I pray each of us will use this time wisely to do exactly that.

I want to begin by taking a moment to look at the words justice and righteousness. I know we talked about this recently but I want to take a moment to refresh us on the Hebrew word that is used for these two words. Our portion is named, Shoftim, or Judges in English. As you can see our portion begins with the appointment of judges and officers. G-d reminds the people that when they come into the land they are to appoint judges in all the gates of the towns they would settle in. The main task of these people would be to administer justice. The overriding goal in all these towns was to have justice as we can see in Deut. 16:20, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Reminder: justice and righteousness, in Hebrew, have the same root word.

What does this tell us when we read this verse? To be just is to also be righteous. G-d, in His character, emulates both of these words. Earthly judges are to  deal only with facts and to mediate justice. Our Father in Heaven however, considers repentance as well.  We may be able to sway an earthly court but our Father in Heaven see and knows our heart.

Our repentance may not sway an earthly judge but G-d considers it. It does not mean we get a get out of jail card but it does mean G-d sees our heart and does not throw us away.

Now, on to the question of the week. In our portion we read verses about prophets and how to recognize a true prophet from a false prophet. In Deut. 18:15 Moshe says, “The L-rd your G-d will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers, you need listen to him.” So we know and expect prophets to be raised up by G-d. We read of them all throughout scripture. 

However, the problem arises in how to distinguish between a true prophet and a false one. I expect even today we have heard of or seen people who claim to be a prophet and have a word for the church or society as a whole. In our world and certainly in scripture we read of such people. Their authority, unlike kings and priest, does not come from a formal office they hold.  Their authority comes from their ability to give voice to G-d’s word for a society or a person. It is exactly from this role that we see throughout scripture men who were not true prophets but rather false prophets. Examples we can find would be the prophets of Ba’al, the prophets of King Ahab. We also see in Jeremiah 6:14 where false prophets were speaking of peace when there was no peace. Such prophets can lead a nation, a group of people or a person down a bad road.

So how do we know the true prophet from a false prophet? Deut. 18:11-12 gives us some guidelines. It seems to be simple enough. If what the person says comes to pass then he is a true prophet, it not he is not a true prophet. However, when we read the story of Jonah we see a complication to this. G-d commanded Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh that their wickedness was about to bring disaster upon them. In Jonah 3:4 we read his words, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.”

We all know what happened. Nineveh was not destroyed. They repented and their city was spared. (Jonah 4:1-3) Jonah was not labeled a false prophet yet what he prophesied did not take place. G-d told Jonah the city was not destroyed because the people repented. Was Jonah a true prophet or not? 

In the book of Jeremiah we find the answer to our question about Jonah. Jeremiah had been prophesying national disaster for Israel. The people had drifted away from G-d and the result would be defeat and exile. This was a difficult message for the people to hear.  However, a false prophet by the name of Hananiah was saying the opposite. He said within two years Babylon would soon be defeated and the crisis would be over. In Jeremiah 28:6-9 we can read Jeremiah’s response. In verse 9 he told the people when a prophet’s message was one of peace it must come to pass. Only then would they know the L-rd had sent the message.  

Jonah’s prophesy did not come to pass because the people took it to heart and changed their lives. For that reason Jonah was not looked upon as a false prophet. The free will of the people changed and G-d chose to save them. People are capable of change and G-d forgives.  We are not locked in to wrong decisions we have made in our lives. I believe, if a person prophesies a positive thing is going to happen in your life, with no requirements from you, and it does not come to pass, that person is a false prophet.  The verses in Jeremiah 28 are a perfect example.

A so called positive prophesy such as Hananiah’s can lull us into thinking all is well when it  really isn’t. G-d gives us opportunities to change. We must take it and not put our faith in the words we hear, from a false prophet, telling us everything is good.