Commentary for Shoftim

9 Aug

This Wednesday marked first day of the month of Elul, the final month of the Jewish calendar. Due to its placement right before the High Holy Days, Elul has taken on a spiritual tone of repentance. We supplement our prayers with the Psalm for the Season of Repentance and the blowing of the shofar, Sephardic Jews start to say Slichot on the second day of the month, and we all begin a time of deep self-reflection.

The Jewish calendar and the cycle of Torah readings are often connected in subtle ways. This week’s parshah, which always falls on the first Shabbat after the beginning of Elul, is no exception. One of the main themes in this week’s parshah is having a just society. The parshah gives us many laws for the establishment of courts and detailing how public officials should act towards the masses, but many of these laws can be used as a guide for our own self-reflection as well.

The second verse of the parshah teaches “You shall not judge unfairly, nor shall you show partiality (16:19).” If we do not judge ourselves fairly then the entire exercise of self-reflection is rendered pointless. The next verse, which contains the well-known phrase “tzedek tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice shall you pursue),” also emphasizes that no evaluation of one’s deeds, be it legal or spiritual, has any meaning if we are not certain that we are coming to a just and fair outcome.

Deut 17:16-20 teaches that, should the Israelites desire to appoint a king, the king will have to follow certain rules. Chief among these is that he shall not attempt to amass an overly excessive amount of wealth. In an attempt to ensure that this does not happen, the Torah commands that each king shall write a Torah scroll (many commentators say two) which he will have with him in his entourage whenever he travels. Should the king become overconfident in his ability to restrain his desire for wealth and power, having a Torah which he put in the massive amount of time and effort required to write traveling with him everywhere he goes will serve as a reminder to him to keep his desires in check. Just as the king will see the Torah and ask himself “have I overestimated my ability to restrain my desires?” we too must ask ourselves during this time of repentance if we have been overconfident in our abilities to do the things we have promised to do.

As part of a biblically ordained pre-war ritual, a priest must address the Israelites before they go into battle. During this speech, he must ask if there are any among them who believe themselves to be too faint-hearted to go to war (Deut 20:8). All who wish to leave the army at this time are allowed to return home because it would be unjust to expect them to do something which they are not cut out to do. During this season of repentance, we must ask ourselves if we have made unfair demands of others and been harsh with them for not meeting expectations that they did not have the capacity to meet. As the High Holy Days approach, we must fairly and honestly evaluate our behavior so that we can work to do teshuvah and improve ourselves in the coming year.

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