Parashat Shoftim opens with the command to appoint judges and legal officials to carry out justice within the society and with a warning against the worship of other gods. Two witnesses must be heard before a court can impose the death penalty. Cases of homicide, civil law, or assault too difficult to decide in one court must be transferred to a higher court. Regulations for choosing a king/leader are presented, including a warning that this leader should follow the laws of Torah faithfully. The offerings for the priests are again set forth; also set forth is the difference between a true and false prophet. Cities of refuge for those guilty of manslaughter are described, with laws forbidding the movement of landmarks. The portion concludes with regulations to be observed during war and with assessments of communal responsibilities when the body of a murder victim is found beyond city limits.
Practically not a day goes by that someone does something, which either hurts my feelings or makes me angry. Though not a particularly volatile person, I am quick to anger when I feel that someone has been unjust—either toward me or toward someone else. Sometimes I want to lash out and hurt that person in response, to psycho-analyze how his or her behavior must be the rest of poor parenting or perhaps even defective genes.
How interesting that, as we begin this month of Elul, this month of preparing ourselves to conduct a fearless moral inventory of our actions and our interactions during the upcoming High Holy Days—that we read Parashat Shoftim. “Shoftim V’shotrim titen l’cha b’chol sh’arecha,” “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that your G-d the Eternal is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that your G-d, the Eternal, is giving you.” (Deut. 16:18-19).
Throughout the whole of this portion there is an emphasis on tzedek: judgment. But the judgment that is spoken about is not simply tzedek, strict judgment, but rather, mishpat tzedek–righteous judgment: judgment that is tempered by love and mercy. Here in Shoftim we find the Torah’s prescription for the social ordering of society. The Tradition teaches that even G-d needed both justice and love to sustain the world. G-d’s two qualities of justice and mercy are reflected in G-d’s two names in the Torah: Y-H-V-H, which we read as Adonai, and Elohim.
In our secular would, we are always judging, always finding fault, criticizing others. We rarely give others the benefit of the doubt, or consider their actions with a generous spirit.
Judaism teaches us that the world that we are called to create—here in our own community, our own little microcosm of the world, and beyond here, in our relations with others—should be one that is guided by mishpat tzedek—righteous judgment. It is true: we must operate with limits, agreed upon boundaries: whether those are determined by halacha, Jewish law, by minhag ha’makom, the customs of our place, or by our own shared agreed upon values. Without such limits, or boundaries, we would have anarchy, and too likely, some would get trampled upon by others. In our own community, for example, we have boundaries for acceptable behavior. If someone violates those boundaries in an extreme way, we would—hopefully—remind them of what is acceptable behavior within our own community. We would set limits. If that person continued to violate those boundaries, then we might graciously, gently but firmly, ask them at a minimum to cease, and at a maximum, to leave. Setting and enforcing such boundaries is a great example of mishpat tzedek—righteous judgment, here within our own community.
What about in our own interactions—when—as I said at the beginning—others make us angry or hurt our feelings and make us want to lash out and judge them harshly, thinking ill of them?
I often think of the well-known teaching at this time of the year, when I am reflecting on my own tendency to be quick to judge others harshly and think negative thoughts about them. A pious person once noted: “We were given two eyes: one very powerful for introspection, so we should find our smallest faults; the other very weak, for viewing others’ faults. Only too often, we switch their functions.”
Contrary to what the tradition seems to suggest, I don’t think that we should simply focus on our own faults, and overlook the faults or the inappropriate behavior of others. Rather, I think that the better response is to see ourselves and others with 20/20 vision, with a broader perspective. To see both them, and ourselves, with greater compassion and understanding. That doesn’t mean either condoning or overlooking their actions when they’ve wronged us, but rather, with love and mercy telling them that they have angered or hurt us, and that was unacceptable. Perhaps if we can all learn to do this with one another, we can come a little closer in creating the kind of world that we are called on to create.