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'Shoftim' means judges and opens with how judges should act, followed by how the Levites should be treated. It deals with laws relating death: specifically to unwitting killers, war and what should be done when a corpse is found in a field and nobody knows who murdered the person.

Another voice

Shoftim by Jonathan Boyd :: 5768

Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of JPR / Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

In Parshat Va'etchanan, which we read a few weeks ago, there is a rather strange short interlude in the narrative just before the repetition of the ten commandments, which describes how Moses established "cities of refuge| – places to where the accidental killer can flee and gain sanctuary. I have often wondered whether the placement of this text is entirely deliberate: the only one of the ten commandments of which Moses himself was actually guilty was lo tirtzach – thou shalt not murder – and after he killed the nameless Egyptian and buried him in the sand, he himself fled to Midian to seek refuge. Some may regard Moses’s violent act as heroic – indeed, it is often portrayed as such – but was Moses haunted by it for his entire life? Did he in some way equate, on the grounds of his belief in the pursuit of justice, his own deliberate killing with an accidental one? And did he, at this critical moment just before reiterating the ten commandments, seek compassion and understanding for his own transgression of one of the laws he was about to decree?

It may be that this week's parsha, Shoftim, adds some fuel to this idea, as it refers once again to the cities of refuge, and includes the famous dictum tzedek tzedek tirdof (justice, justice, shall you pursue). Moreover, parshat shoftim is always read on the first Shabbat of the month of Elul – traditionally the period of reflection and repentance leading up to yamim noraim (the High Holy Days). Indeed, there is a beautiful Chassidic idea that draws a parallel between the cities of refuge and Elul – the former being a sanctuary in space for contemplation and atonement, the latter being a similar sanctuary in time. So at this very particular juncture in the Jewish year, the notions of a sanctuary in time, accidental wrongdoing, and the pursuit of justice coalesce in an intriguing and challenging way, and invite us to steady ourselves on the path to teshuva (repentance).

According to the Rambam, the pathway to a physical city of refuge is meant to be as clear as possible. In the Mishneh Torah, he writes that "the court is obligated to straighten the roads to the cities of refuge, to repair them and broaden them. They must remove all impediments and obstacles ... bridges should be built [over all natural barriers] so as not to delay one who is fleeing [to a city of refuge]. 'Refuge' should be written at every crossroads so that the murderers should recognize the way and turn there." The Chassidic parallel above perhaps leads to a similar conclusion about the temporal refuge that is Elul. Justice in this instance would be for us to clear and repair every possible route to allow those who have done wrong – whether accidentally or deliberately – to be given some respite and a little sanctuary in order to reflect on, and make amends for their actions. We would often like others to make it as easy as possible for us to apologise for our own misdemeanours; but are we making it as easy as possible for them to do likewise for theirs?

Elul is a signpost at a crossroads in our lives. Judaism gives us this brief window in the year to clear the pathways towards our own atonement, and that of others. Many of us live, as perhaps Moses did, under the various weights of misdemeanours committed long ago that were never resolved, and with a longstanding wish for compassion and understanding for that wrongdoing. Now is the time to clear away all the existing impediments and build all the necessary bridges towards achieving those resolutions. Doing so may just bring a little more justice to the world.


More by Jonathan Boyd

Another voice by Taste of Limmud Team

The opening words of Shoftim are 'Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities'. The Hebrew word for you (male) is lecha which can also mean 'to you'. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein says that in addition to appointing judges in your cities one should be a judge over oneself. It is very easy for us to justify our behaviour because we rationalise that it is ok because we know our inner thoughts. A judge is not allowed to give a person the benefit of the doubt and we also should not give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. As we have just entered the month of Elul, it is a time to do teshuvah (repentance) and think about our past actions and how we will behave in the future. Judge yourself truthfully!


More by Taste of Limmud Team

Other Divrei Torah on Shoftim

  • 5766 (Marc Soloway)
  • 5767 (Moshe Bleich)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Leonie Lewis)
  • 5769 (Martin Glasser)
  • 5770 (Jonathan Boyd)
  • 5770 (Paul Turner)
  • 5771 (Daniel Reisel)
  • 5773 (Anna Gerrard)
  • 5774 (Jeremy Tabick)
  • 5774 (Limmud On One Leg Team)