SALT - Motzaei Shabbat, August 31, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Parashat Shoftim begins with the command to appoint “shofetim ve-shoterim” – judges and law enforcers.  As Rashi explains, the judges are authorized to determine the law, and the shoterim are authorized to enforce compliance through punitive measures.
            The Midrash (Devarim Rabba 5:5) brings a different reading of this command to appoint “shofetim ve-shoterim,” explaining it to mean that the shoterim are to conduct themselves as shofetim.  Rather than mindlessly applying force to impose compliance with the law, the shoterim are to exercise sound judgment and discretion in fulfilling their roles.  They are to be equipped with a rod with which to strike violators when necessary, but also with judiciousness to know when punishment is unwise, and the restraint to withdraw the rod on such occasions.
            The Midrash continues, “Actions should be in place of the rod and strap, so that the whip will not need to whip.”  In other words, there are times when other actions take the place of punishment, when the desired result of positively modifying behavior can be achieved without punitive measures.  The “shoterim” are to resemble “shofetim” by using common sense to know when punishment is necessary and when it isn’t.
            In discussing this Midrashic passage, Rav Yissakhar Dov of Belz references Chazal’s famous teaching that one who delves into the study of the laws of the sacrifices is considered as having actually brought the sacrifice (Menachot 110a).  Citing his father, Rav Yissakhar Dov of Belz explains that the objective of a punishment – such as a sacrifice – can often be more fully achieved through study, and God prefers study over punishment as a method of correcting wrongful behavior.  We are therefore encouraged to delve into the study of Torah to learn the proper way to behave, which obviates the need to endure punishment for our wrongdoing.  Similarly, those charged with the responsibility of enforcing compliance should not blindly resort to punitive measures in an effort to achieve the goal of enforcement.  They are to use prudence in determining when to use force and when to use other, milder means of ensuring compliance with the law.
            Often, when we react harshly to improper conduct, this is a visceral response, rather than a calculated decision as to the best way of handling the situation.  We might justify our anger by claiming that this is the appropriate response, but in many instances, this is not the case, and the desired objective can be much more effectively achieved through a milder response.  The Midrash here teaches us that the “rod” and “strap” are not always the best choice in handling misconduct, and that careful, sound judgment is needed before deciding upon the proper response to wrongful behavior.