Four Areas of Leadership
Parashat Shoftim, as even its name suggests ("shoftim" means judges), deals with the theme of leadership in Am Yisrael, which is distributed among different areas of public concern. Specifically, four categories of leadership are discussed. In the first half of this shiur, we will briefly review these four categories and note how the Torah introduces - and thus views - each:
1) Judicial: The first several verses of the parasha (16:18-2o) call for the establishment of a stable judicial network that would ensure fair and honest jurisdiction throughout the country. These verses are followed by several laws involving idolatry: the prohibitions against adorning God's altar as the pagans decorated theirs (16:21; see commentaries), erecting religious monuments (16:22), and the punishment of an idolater (17:2-7; how 17:1 fits into context requires independent treatment). Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni explain that these laws appear in this context to emphasize the judiciary's role in opposing paganism. The Jewish court system serves not only to settle monetary disputes and prosecute dangerous criminals, but to preserve the religious foundations upon which the nation is built. To that end, the elimination of pagan practices ranks among its primary objectives.
2) Halakhic: The Torah (17:8-13) calls for the establishment of a central, authoritative body of halakhic decision-making, where all vexing issues of halakhic concern can be resolved. Although rabbinical courts must be established throughout the country, in every municipality, a single High Court serves as the central halakhic authority, so as to prevent the development of divergent or conflicting modes of practice. Interestingly, Chizkuni here views this requirement as evidence against the position of the Karaites, who denied the authority of the Oral Law and upheld the right of every individual to interpret the Written Law as he wishes. Chizkuni argues that were this to be the case, the Torah would have no need to appoint a single body with overarching authority to determine the correct interpretation of the law based on halakhic tradition.
3) Political: In Parashat Shoftim the Torah (17:14-20) allows for the establishment of a monarchy. The concern of power abuse and arrogance inherent to the institution of kingship emerges clearly from the discussion in this parasha. Most obviously, nowhere in these verses do we read of the king's mandate, what power or force he may exert over his subjects. We find such a discussion only much later in the Bible, when the prophet Shemuel attempts to discourage the people from appointing a king (Shemuel II 8:11-18). Here the Torah speaks only of the king's religious responsibilities, which include a limit on wealth, property and wives, and a requirement to write a Sefer Torah and study it constantly. Additionally, the Torah appears to merely permit, but not require, a monarchy: "If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, 'I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,' you shall indeed set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God" (17:14-15). As the aforementioned narrative in Sefer Shemuel reflects, in Jewish tradition there is a great deal of ambivalence shown towards Jewish kingship, in that it threatens to undermine the Kingship of the Almighty. It is noteworthy as well that the nation may appoint a king only after they have completed the conquest, distribution and settlement of the land. Normally, the king would lead his nation to war, decide upon the conquered territory's distribution, and arrange for urban development, road construction, etc. Benei Yisrael, however, can establish their kingship only after all this has been achieved, perhaps reinforcing the Torah's emphasis on the limit of the king's jurisdiction and power. By allowing for his ascent to the throne only after these duties have been fulfilled, the Torah reminds Benei Yisrael that God, who brought them to the land and led its conquest, is the true King; anyone sitting on a throne must be viewed as fully subject to divine authority.
4) Spiritual: The spiritual leadership of Benei Yisrael consists of two groups: 1) the kohanim and Levi'im, who received no portion in the land and are supported by the rest of the nation so they can perform the sacred service in the Temple (18:1-8); 2) the prophets (18:9-22). We find a glaring and revealing distinction between the Torah's introduction of the monarchy, mentioned earlier, and that of the prophet. The Torah begins its presentation of the kingship by anticipating the people's desire to appoint a king "as do all the nations about me." God allows the people to duplicate the mode of leadership employed by surrounding countries. The Torah presents the institution of prophecy much differently, specifically by contrasting it with the superstitious modes of fortune-telling common among the Canaanite nations:
When you enter the land… you shall not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer… The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself; him you shall heed (18:9-10,15).
Whereas Benei Yisrael may look to the surrounding nations for models of political leadership, spiritual leadership must remain autonomous, like the Torah itself.
The remainder of the parasha (19:1-21:9) deals with several areas of public concern for which the institutions of leadership described until now bear responsibility (see Seforno, 19:2 for a specific breakdown). We will address some of these areas in the second part of our shiur.
Viewing Parashat Shoftim in Context
When studying this parasha, it is helpful to establish a contextual perspective, by determining its role here in the middle of Devarim. Last week's parasha, Parashat Re'ei, marked a fundamental shift of focus in Moshe's final address to the nation. In the first three parshiyot - Devarim, Vaetchanan and Eikev, Moshe spoke in broad, general terms about Benei Yisrael's obligations when they arrive in Canaan. He dealt primarily with the threats of idolatry and lack of faith in God, drawing upon unfortunate precedents from their experiences in the wilderness. In Parashat Re'ei, Moshe shifts his attention from the general to the specific, from the abstract message conveyed in the first three parshiyot to the practical requirements and prohibitions Benei Yisrael must observe. Parashat Re'ei focused mainly on the laws concerning "ha-makom asher yivchar Hashem" - "the site that the Lord will choose," or the Temple, which would emerge as the center of religious life in the Land of Israel. Parashat Re'ei elaborately outlined the many obligations involving the Temple and its centrality.
Whereas Parashat Re'ei dealt with the center and focal point of religious life, next week's reading, Parashat Ki-Teitzei, addresses basic social conduct. It features a wide array of commands involving day-to-day life, such as marriage and divorce, business ethics, and so on. In Parashat Re'ei, we are told how the Temple must become the country's spiritual center; in Parashat Ki-Teitzei, we learn how to conduct ourselves spiritually even outside that center. (See Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch's introductory remarks to Parashat Ki-Teitzei.)
Parashat Shoftim, then, marks the transition from the Temple - the representative embodiment of the Torah's ideals - to the day-to-day, practical application of these ideals in ordinary life. In this process, the national leadership plays a critical role. It must set the tone for the entire country through its activity on the procedural level, establishing and maintaining policies consistent with and conducive to the ideals by which Am Yisrael must live.
To further clarify this designation of Parashat Shoftim as bridging between the two worlds of Parishiyot Re'ei and Ki-Teitzei, we will briefly examine the structure towards the end of the parasha. Chapter 20 begins a section dealing with warfare, which continues into the beginning of Parashat Ki-Teitzei, through 21:14. Or so it appears. This unit is interrupted by the law of "egla arufa," the ritual to be performed by the elders of a city upon the discovery of a murder victim's body in the city's vicinity (21:1-9). This discussion, which concludes Parashat Shoftim, disrupts the unit of otherwise contiguous laws of war. This problem seemed to have troubled Ibn Ezra, who sought to explain the relevance of the egla arufa ritual to warfare: "When mentioning warfare against an enemy, it addresses an individual who wages battle against another." Once we view an isolated murder as a form of "warfare," then the command concerning the egla arufa indeed belongs in the Torah's discussion of war.
We may also suggest, however, that the unit discussing war in fact consists of two distinct sections, the first of which is concluded by the discussion of the egla arufa. The warfare unit includes the following topics:
1) the kohen's address to the warriors before battle, offering encouragement and issuing an exemption to certain groups of soldiers (20:1-19);
2) the requirement to offer a peace proposal before waging war, except when confronting the Canaanite nations, with whom no treaty could be made (20:10-18);
3) forbidden military tactics while besieging an enemy city (20:19-20);
4) the procedure by which a soldier may marry a woman from an enemy nation captured during battle (21:10-14).
Unlike the first three topics, dealt with in Parashat Shoftim, the fourth, which opens Parashat Ki-Teitzei, is addressed to the individual soldier. The halakha described applies to a single warrior who desires a woman whom he wishes to marry. The first three issues all involve military procedure, dictating protocols to be followed by the political and military establishment: conscription and furloughs, when to prefer peacemaking over combat, and military procedures. These subjects are the domain of Parashat Shoftim, the parasha of Jewish leadership and government. The final topic, the marriage of a captive woman, belongs in Parashat Ki-Teitzei, which deals mainly with individual conduct, rather than governmental policy.
Among the central themes of egla arufa is the ultimate responsibility taken by the leadership for crimes committed by its populace. The city's elders must bring this "sacrifice" to atone for the murder (21:8) - despite the lack of evidence linking them or any of their city's residents to the crime. In fact, even the kohanim, who live nowhere near the city in question, participate in this ritual (21:5). As the spiritual leaders, they, too, bear a certain degree of responsibility for moral corruption. (See the commentary of the Malbim for a more precise explanation of the shared responsibility of the local and national religious leaders.) Thus, rather than disrupting the unit on warfare, the section of egla arufa concludes the broader unit of leadership roles and responsibility, the theme that occupies virtually all of Parashat Shoftim.
Egla Arufa and National Leadership
Further elaboration on the egla arufa could perhaps help demonstrate how the theme of leadership bridges between the institutional level of Parashat Re'ei and the practical, down-to-earth level of Parashat Ki-Teitzei. The commentators offer different explanations behind this ritual, which entails measuring from the scene of the crime to the nearest city, and a public assembly where that city's elders break the neck of a calf and wash their hands over it. According to the Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:40), the tumult created by this entire ceremony will bring the matter to the public's attention which will hopefully lead to the culprit's discovery and arrest. The Ramban, in his commentary to this parasha, disagrees, and explains the egla arufa instead as a unique form of sacrifice, bringing atonement for this terrible crime. Rather than serving merely as a tactic by which investigators can solve the murder mystery, the egla arufa should be seen as a sacrificial ritual warranted by the need to atone for the murder.
Rabbenu Yossef Bekhor Shor follows the Rambam's approach, but then inserts what appears to be a different approach: "Additionally, we will see the significant matter and immense concern that the Almighty requires we go through for a single life." The tumult generated by the egla arufa ritual serves not merely a pragmatic function, of helping to find the killer, but an educational purpose - sensitizing us to the severity of the loss of even a single human life. Years later, the Netziv wrote along generally similar lines: "This affair of the egla arufa, which is done publicly with the help of the High Court which comes to measure [to the city closest to the murder scene], leads to inquiries regarding the past and enactment for the future." The fanfare associated with this ritual causes a stir in the city, prompting government action to identify the possible factors leading to the tragedy and the means by which they can prevent its recurrence.
Professor Nechama Leibowitz, in her Studies on this parasha, eloquently develops this notion at length:
The rite was designed to shock all the residents of the neighboring localities with the tidings that a murdered man had been found in the vicinity. We know too well the indifference that prevails among people regarding the miseries of others. Anyone hearing of a murder, either then or now, would shake his head, go on his way and the world would continue as before…
Man himself is part of nature, dust of the earth, and, similarly, after seeing the corpse lying on the field, continues on his way and goes home to eat and drink, preoccupied with his own needs. But man is not completely animal. There breathes in him a divine spirit and he is made in the image of God. For this reason, his Creator ordained the carrying out of an elaborate ritual with the participation of the elders of the congregation and the priest. By this all Israel would be made aware of what had happened and would not pass over it to continue with the agenda when innocent blood cried heavenward.
The flurry of activity with which the leadership responds to the murder helps preserve the sensitivity to human life, which would otherwise begin to wear after an act of bloodshed. The intensive involvement of the elders and the kohanim in reaction to a crime impacts upon the general mindset of the populace and shapes its moral consciousness. When seen in this vein, egla arufa exemplifies the theme of Sefer Shoftim - the bridge between the institutional and the practical. The responsibilities of the leadership set the tone for the public's awareness and determine the norms and ideals by which the society is governed.
The centrality of the Temple, as manifest in Parashat Re'ei, focuses the nation's attention on their spiritual mission as a people. This focus finds practical expression in the application of God's laws on a day-to-day basis, as represented by Parashat Ki-Teitzei. The leadership of Parashat Shoftim plays a pivotal role in forming this bridge between Re'ei and Ki-Teitzei, by working at the institutional level to impact upon day-to-day life.