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

Haftorah Reading: Yesha’yahu (Isaiah) 51:12-53:12

Today is the first Shabbat of the Hebrew month Elul. This is a period of introspection, self examination and repentance leading up to Yom Kippur. This period has much to teach us. With this in mind, it seems appropriate that we study this portion about the process of setting up judges, courts and even the appointment of kings.

As we start I would like to explain a few Hebrew words used in our text that might help us in our understanding of this portion and its relevance to our lives today. The first word we need to understand is “tshuva.” This word, in Hebrew, means to turn around, to go in another direction from the way you have been going. It also has the idea that the person will not return to their former path but resolve to stay on the new way. This gives us a good picture of what G-d expects from us when we turn from sin and turn toward Him. We feel remorse for what we have done and resolve to not do it again.

Now with that being said, let’s look at some of the fruits of this new way, this new life. To start us off let’s look at D’varim/Deut. 16:20, “Justice, justice only shall you pursue.” In Hebrew this phrase is filled with meaning that we might overlook if we only think of the English wording. The Hebrew word translated as Justice here in our verse is spelled and pronounced exactly the same as the Hebrew word for righteousness. What can we learn from this? We, as G-d’s people, are to be righteous as he is righteous. We also are to be just as He is just.

So what does this word, when translated as justice tell us? To be just means that as righteous people we have the responsibility to make sure that we treat each person justly, no matter their color, social standing, or financial status. We are to do all we can to help and minister to those who are in need. We are to live as if every person’s needs are as important as our own. We need to remind ourselves that we are all created in the image of G-d.  This does not come easily to us. We have our own filters by which we draw conclusions about people. We all have our own prejudices. Our challenge, as the people of G-d, is to not allow that to cloud our reactions to people who may not fit our picture of deserving our help.

If we go back to our verse of, “Justice, justice pursue…” we get a hint of that human struggle. The Hebrew word for pursue is tirdof. This word means to chase after something or someone with all your strength and might. It is used in scripture in those places where it is imperative to catch or to overtake someone. So justice or righteousness is something that takes effort and work. In fact, the word translated as worship in Hebrew is the same as the word for work. Our worship of G-d is not passive, it involves work. It takes effort on our part. Our worship is part of pursuing justice and righteousness in our lives. Another point about the word tirdofd in this passage, this word in Hebrew is a singular verb, meaning that when Moshe spoke this he was applying it to each person. No one was exempt from this pursuit. This also applies to each of us.

Our portion gives us the qualifications for judges who are to be set up over the people. When we look at D’varim/Deut. 16:18-19 we see judges were to be impartial, not twisted in favor of one person over another, not a respecter of persons. Everyone was to be treated the same and the judge could not be swayed by a bribe. These qualifications also apply to each of us. As we read on in chapter 17:14-20 we see even the king of Israel was expected to also live by these words of Torah.

I would like to take a moment to to cover one last subject that I think is closely tied to seeking righteousness. In D’Varim/Deut. 21:1-9 we read the commandment concerning a person found slain in a field and it is not known who killed him. I always remember this Torah portion each year because of what happened to me in Jerusalem in September 1997. This was the Torah portion for the week when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside my office. In that attack he killed 5 young school children who had come to town to buy their school supplies for the coming year.

Back to these verses, we see in this passage where the elders of the closest town to the dead body had to come and make a vow that they did not know the person, they had not shed his blood and their eyes had not seen. (verse 7)  Saying in effect, they and their town had not been aware of this person or his needs physically for shelter and food. This ties back directly to the subject of justice, justice pursue.  They were saying had they been aware of his needs they would have helped him. But the question comes, should they have known? It seems so because they brought a calf to sacrifice. This seems to be very important in G-d’s sight, helping people in need and also having some framework in place to do it.

I pray for each of us that our lives be marked by being people who are righteous as G-d is righteous and we live each day pursuing justice, not only for ourselves but for others around us.