Commentary for Shoftim

14 Sep

This week’s parshah begins with a commandment to appoint “judges and officers in all of your cities (Deut. 16:8).”  These officials are then commanded to judge the people righteously, not take bribes or show favoritism, and pursue justice.  In other words, it’s the kind of stuff you would expect to hear in the mitzvah to set up a just legal system.

What is interesting, though, is that the word used for “officers”- shotrim– is also used to refer to the Israelite foremen who were in charge of the individual crews of Israelite slaves in Egypt.  In Exodus the word is usually paired with nogshim- “taskmasters,” as opposed to here where it is paired with shoftim– “judges.”  The Hebrew word “eved (pl. avadim),” coming from the root meaning “to work,” also has a similar set of multiple meanings that must be distinguished through context.  It can mean both “slave” and “servant,” with the servant in question either being a paid servant or one who is subordinate to a higher power, such as one who is described as a “servant of God.”  In Egypt, the Israelite avadim were slaves of Pharaoh, while now they are servants of God.

Comparing the hierarchies of authority under these two masters reveals an important contrast.  In Egypt, Pharaoh gave work orders to the taskmasters, who were responsible for ensuring that the work got done.  The orders were then passed on to the Israelite shotrim (in this case, foremen), who were responsible for the actual organization and logistics of the Israelite slaves completing the work.  The taskmasters did not care how the work was completed.  It didn’t matter to them if everyone put in their fair share of work, or if one Israelite did all of the work while the rest of them slept all day.  They didn’t care who did the work, how they did it, or even if anyone was hurt or killed while doing it.  All they cared was that the work was completed on schedule.

Under God, the “work”- living a moral life and fulfilling responsibilities to the community- is given to everyone.  No one can get away with claiming that they did not know that it was wrong to commit murder or that they were supposed to pay their part of tithe.  Each and every individual is responsible for his or her portion of the “work.”  The shotrim, now paired with the judges instead of the taskmasters, are responsible for ensuring that everyone does his or her share.  They care greatly about how the work is done, and are tasked with determining when someone has not done the work correctly- i.e. the commission of a crime or skirting on their taxes- and are commanded to do so without prejudice of any kind, judging righteously and ensuring that true justice is done.  In the world of Pharaoh, the end goal is merely that his work gets done on time.  It doesn’t matter who does it, who gets hurt doing it, or how many moral corners get cut to get it done on time, and agents are employed to make sure it gets done on time.  In God’s world, it is both the work and the people that matter, and agents are employed to ensure that neither are violated.


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