In establishing these important legal/religious institutions, the Torah recognizes that justice is rarely black and white. The grey area is built into the system. Judges will interpret the law and the officers will enforce it. Sounds simple enough, but we know that’s not the case. Rashi teaches that merely appointing people to these positions is only going halfway. The officials who are given these weighty responsibilities must be worthy in all ways. To this day, we often see and experience what happens when the judiciary is subject to political or popular influence, or when those charged with the enforcement of the law are forced to make snap decisions in the heat of the moment which, given their perception of circumstances, training, and biases (both positive and negative) can either have compassionate and successful outcomes, or end tragically. Hence the elegance of the concluding verse. We are told to pursue justice, not enforce, mandate, or dictate it. The mandate being presented here is the active pursuit of honesty, equity, fairness, and truth in our courts. The pursuit of a goal which we all must accept is often elusive should be equally shared by those who make the laws, and those who enforce them. We often experience a rush to judgement. The first three verses of our parsha teach us that the real mitzva is rushing to justice, true justice, in judgement.
Then the Torah ups the ante. Verses 21 and 22 prohibit the placement of idolatrous iconography (trees or pillars) alongside an altar to G-d. Despite the fact that the Patriarchs often erected such monuments, the location of such symbols are prohibited multiple places in the Torah, and their destruction is mandated. Ramban (Nachmanides) suggests here that such grand constructions were intended to attract idol worshipers to their temples. Why, then, are these verses juxtaposed to the ones which came before? To keep us from developing an edifice complex. The aesthetics of the building, especially if they represent practices and values not our own, are irrelevant and may even be misleading. What truly matters is what happens inside. What good is a synagogue or any other house of worship, whether it’s a tent, trailer, or magnificent building, if what happens inside doesn’t inspire holiness and bring the worshiper closer to the Divine? Similarly, what good is a court if the proceedings it houses are not in the active, ongoing pursuit of honest justice? Of the many lessons of parshat Shoftim, this first one is that our legal system should not be dedicated to the unwavering pursuit of just any verdict. Rather, we should be dedicated to the unadulterated quest for truth, honesty, and fairness.
The Spanish playwright, author, and poet Lope de Vega (1562-1635) is often credited with penning the aphorism that all that was necessary for theater were “two boards and a passion.” Perhaps the opening of Shoftim teaches that we can even dispense with the boards. What’s important is the justice which we must pursue. Passionately.
Shabbat Shalom, and Chodesh Tov; a good month!
Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen