Yeshivat Har Etzion
By Yaacov Steinman
Parashat Shoftim is characterized by a strong emphasis on centralization. This trend began already in parashat Re'eh, with its repeated insistence on the centrality of religious life at "the place that God shall choose." In our parasha, the subject shifts from religious centrality to political and social centrality. Beginning with 17:8 (and, to a lesser extent perhaps, already in 17:2), we find that the problems of civil administration should be solved by a central institution of the Jewish people, found in that same place that will be chosen by God, the place we today know as Yerushalayim.
1. 17:8-13 - Central system of justice -
If a matter be beyond your understanding in justice, a matter of blood or of law or of affliction, matters of controversy in your gates, you shall arise and go up to the place which HaShem your God shall chose. And you shall come before the levite priests, and before the judge who will be in those days, and you shall ask and they shall tell you the verdict of justice. You shall do according to that which they shall tell you, from that place which God has chosen, and you shall be careful to do all that they instruct you ... not swaying from that which they tell you left or right.
It is worth noting that this law, the obligation to submit to the authority of the sanhedrin, is not merely presented as one of practical necessity. The repeated mention that the central institution of justice sits in "the place chosen by God" gives this obligation a religious aura, implying, or at least hinting, that the sanhedrin speaks with the authority of God. This is especially compelling when joined directly to the injunction to obey - "You shall do according to that which they shall tell you, from that place which God has chosen." This clearly seems to imply that you should do as they tell you, FOR they are speaking from the place that God has chosen; i.e., the sanctity of the place and the presence of God therein is what stands behind the authority of the institution. This would imply that the centralization expressed in the institution of the sanhedrin reflects the unity and oneness of God. This surely elevates the principle of centralization to a very high level.
The practical result of this law and the institution of the sanhedrin is that the Torah speaks in one voice for all Israel. More specifically, the responsibility for interpreting the law ultimately resides in one central body. What is the law that applies to some remote village in the north of the land? - The sanhedrin in Yerushalayim shall decide.
2. 17:14-20 - Central political authority
When you come to the land which HaShem your God is giving you, and you inherit and settle it, and you say: I shall appoint a king over me, like all the nations in the area. You shall appoint a king over you whom God shall choose... And it shall be, when he sits on the throne, he shall write down for himself a copy of this Torah, before the Levite priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, in order that he learn to fear HaShem his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these laws to observe them.
Immediately after the commandment to bring all juridical questions to one central institution comes the mitzva to appoint a king. The background to this mitzva is clear - AFTER you settle the land, the question will arise concerning the monarchy. In other words, monarchy is an institution that succeeds a dispersed settlement of the Jews throughout the land. Remember - these words are being spoken in the desert, when the Jews are all living in one camp and Moshe is the unquestioned religious, juridical, and political leader. But, Moshe says to them, when you enter the land, and inherit it, and settle it - then you will ask for a king. It is clear that the king is a counter weight to the centrifugal force of settlement.
As we noted concerning the sanhedrin, here too there is a connection made between the civil authority of the king and religious stature. The sanhedrin sits in "the place chosen by God." The king is commanded to write a sefer Torah and keep it with him always. It is true that the Torah explicitly states that the purpose of this mitzva is to educate the king, to be a braking force on the corrupting influence of power. However, it is also true, I think, that the effect of this Torah in the bosom of the king is to create an certain measure of identification between the king and the Torah. If it is true that the king must remember that he is subject to Torah laws, it is also true that he carries, as a visible symbol of his authority (and perhaps his mission), a copy of the Torah, much as other kings would carry a scepter, or the royal seal. The verse had previously stated that the king is "chosen" by God, though how this process should take place is unclear (halakhically, it is by consulting a prophet). The centrality of political power in the hands of the king can therefore be seen, at least to a certain extent, as reflecting the centrality of God's rule, and the Torah's rule, in Israel.
It is, of course, well-known that the desirability of the monarchy in Judaism is an ancient controversy, based on comparing our parasha to the story of Shmuel and the coronation of Shaul, as well as the internal hints in our parasha as well, most noticeably the undoubted negative implication of the phrase "like all the nations in the area." But this does not affect the cumulative result of the institutionalization of the principle of centralization in the parasha. With whatever hue of approval or disapproval, the Torah clearly envisions that a king will be appointed, and incorporates this institution into the Torah structure. The result is that he, the king, shall rule, "he and his sons, in the midst of Israel" (17:20).
3. 18:9-22 - Prophecy
For you are coming to the land which HaShem your God is giving you ... for these nations whom you are inheriting follow diviners and magicians, but as for you, God has not allowed you to do so. God will arrange for you a prophet from your midst from your brethren, LIKE ME, and you shall listen to him ... But the man who shall not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I shall requite it of him.
The institution of prophecy itself is not a centralized one. There is no reason that there could not be several prophets whose area of activity would be local. However, the context of this parasha is clearly national. The prophet here is a successor to Moshe. God had promised Moshe, "I will arrange a prophet for them from the midst of their brethren LIKE YOU" (18:18). The context, including the opening comparison to the nations of Canaan, is the question how the people will receive guidance in national policy once Moshe is dead. Other people's have elaborate mechanisms to divine the will of the gods. God promises that He will make sure that there will be a prophet to guide the Jewish people in a parallel manner.
In this case, it is not necessary for me to point out that the centrality and authority of this institution is based on the centrality and authority of God. The prophet by definition speaks that which God has placed in his mouth. But it is worth noting that here, as in the case of the sanhedrin, the punishment for disobedience is EXPLICITLY connected to the divine presence inherent in the prophet - "But the man who shall not listen to My words which he shall speak IN MY NAME, I shall requite it of him."
These three institutions, judge, king, and prophet, are the three central pillars of Jewish national life. The other sections of this week's parasha should also be understood in this light. The significance of the laws of idolatry and murder in our parasha, as opposed to elsewhere in the Torah, is that these two transgressions of an individual undermine the integrity of the national fabric and threaten the entire social areligious order. (In regard to murder, I discussed this in last year's shiur to parashat Shoftim.) The underlying theme of the entire parasha is the centrality of RESPONSIBILITY - for certain sins, for problems, for disputes. If we need to know what to do, if we need to know how to decide a dispute, if we need to extirpate certain sins - the answer is found in Yerushalayim, in the place which God has chosen, or with the prophet, who is chosen of God personally. It is not the responsibility of the local community or the individual to solve these problems and questions.
There are two glaring exceptions to this emphasis on central national responsibility in the parasha - the first and the last sections.
Judges and officials shall you appoint in each of your gates, which HaShem your God is giving you FOR YOUR TRIBES, and they shall judge the people with a just judgement (16:18).
"If a corpse be found in the ground ... and THE CITY CLOSEST TO THE CORPSE, the elders of the city shall take a calf. ..." (21:1-3).
a. Local courts
That there are courts in every "gate" is not in itself an indication that they are meant to express a local responsibility. It would be simple to argue that this is merely a matter of efficient organization of a national system of justice. The crucial word here, however, is "li-shvatekha - for your tribes." At first glance, it appears to be the object of the phrase, "which HaShem your God is giving you." Chazal and the classical commentators, however, reject this explanation as meaningless. Your cities ("gates") are given to you by God. What does it mean that they are given to you for your tribes? Therefore, the accepted explanation is, as Rashi puts it, that "li-shvatekha" refers back to the beginning of the verse. You shall appoint judges ... for your tribes. "This teaches us that there should be a court for each tribe and for each city" (Rashi 16:18, s.v. Li-shvatekha):
The problem with this explanation is that it is difficult to understand practically what it is meant to imply. The Ramban asks: "I do not understand the meaning of this, for if we appoint a court in each city, then there will be many courts in each tribe." He goes on to suggest two possible explanations. One is that if a city is shared by two tribes (as Yerushalayim was between Yehuda and Binyamin), it would have two courts. The second is that perhaps there would be a tribal court which would be a higher authority than the local city courts. This suggestion is not as obvious as it might seem to modern ears, since there is no apparent basis in Talmudic laws for the existence of appellate courts in Judaism. What does a higher court do? The Ramban suggests either that a defendant in a civil lawsuit could insist on moving the case to the higher court, or that in cases of doubt, the matter would go from the lower court to the tribal court before it would be taken to the national court described in 17:8-13. In fact, the Rambam does not mention the existence of tribal courts in his halakhic compendium. Some commentators have claimed that the Rambam omitted it because he felt that indeed once the obligation to establish city courts is clear, there is no longer any need for tribal ones.
Be that as it may, the formulation of the verse still seems to have deliberately created the impression that the courts are not "in your tribe," in a parallel sense to "in your gates," but rather that they are in your cities, with a reminder that the cities are given to you "for your tribes." I think that this is a reminder of the main significance of the tribal organization of the Jewish people. The land of Israel was divided up by tribes, with each tribe receiving a distinct section. The phrase, "given to you li-shvatekha," reflects the fact that the land was indeed distributed by tribe. In our context, I suggest that the implication is that the local courts are not meant to be mere arms of the national system of justice, but are in the cities which are in the land which has been DIVIDED locally, to each tribe. The very existence of tribes in the Jewish people is a counterweight to the centralization principle, and every time the word "tribe" appears, we are ipso facto facing anti-centralization emphasis. Here we are told to place courts of justice in the cities of our tribes, meaning in the cities in their local context. The execution of justice is a local matter.
b. Egla arufa
This emphasis is, of course, much more evident in the last section of the parasha, egla arufa. If a corpse is found, unknown, slain in the field, we go to the nearest city and force the local elders of that city to take responsibility for the blood that has been shed. In contrast to the cities of refuge of chapter 19, which are established by the nation to serve as a national solution to the problem of murder, the responsibility for the unknown corpse is placed squarely on the nearest city and its elders. No mention is made here of the sanhedrin, the king is not called, the nation as a whole appears to be unconcerned and untroubled. Responsibility is localized, not centralized.
There is, in both of these cases, a background of national supervision. In the case of egla arufa, although the ceremony is performed by the local elders, the verse also refers to "kohanim."
... the elders of that city shall take.... The elders of that city shall take the calf down to the river.... And the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forth, for they have been chosen by HaShem your God to serve Him, and to bless in the name of God, and all conflict and affliction is (decided) by them. And all the elders of that city which was close to the corpse shall wash their hands over the calf that was beheaded in the river. And they shall respond and say: Our hands have not spilled this blood and eyes have not seen. Atone for Your people Israel whom you have redeemed, God, and let there not be innocent blood in the midst of Your people Israel. And the blood shall be atoned for them (21:3-7).
What do the priests do? It is very unclear, as the only verb that clearly refers to them is "shall come forth." But then what? The accepted halakhic position is that they recite the verse "Atone for Your people Israel ..." after the elders have recited the verse "Our hands have not spilled ..." But the impression that the verses give us in that both lines are recited by the elders, with the priests merely hanging around in the background. Here, as in the cases we discussed in the beginning of the shiur, the Torah reminds us that the priests represent God, the central and uniquely central feature of Jewish national existence - "for they have been chosen by HaShem your God to serve Him, and to bless in the name of God, and all conflict and affliction is (decided) by them." The priests are there, even though this is primarily a local matter and a local responsibility, because they have been chosen by God to oversee every dispute and every affliction.
Less explicitly, the section of local courts at the beginning of the parasha will be followed by the section of the national court which we discussed at the beginning of the shiur. What is the purpose of the national court according to our parasha? - if the local court cannot decide, then the matter is brought to the sanhedrin. The local responsibility is not total and not without some sort of backing in the national institution. The representatives of the central national institution, the institution that represents God's presence, remain in the background in these cases, their presence muted, but they are nonetheless there.
In short, the parasha opens with an example of local responsibility - each local community must take responsibility for justice - and then proceeds to connect that very local responsibility to a national centralized authority based on God's presence, followed, at the center of the parasha, by the ultimate symbol of centralization, the king, then the institution of prophecy, followed by various laws of national policy (cities of refuge, war), and then concludes by once again turning to a demand for local responsibility, egla arufa, subtly connecting it as well to God and His central representatives from the Temple, the kohanim.