Shoftim 5779 – Who Are We to Judge

By: Alan Bach

This week we read Shoftim which translated means judges. Fortunately, the first few verses was all I needed to formulate my d’var. The majority of the parsha was difficult to get through and stay awake. The Torah and more important the rabbis over the centuries continue to impress me with the amount of knowledge and wisdom that can be derived from just a few sentences.

The main theme of the parsha is justice and the amount of power that kings, elders or any other type of ruler can obtain, and the obligation of the judges they appoint to treat everyone in a fair manner. From the beginning, a system of law and order was established to protect the most vulnerable from the most powerful. In Chapter 16, verse 20 we read the most recognized lines from Shoftim, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your G-d is giving you”. The directive is made in the second person, plural – You. The obligation is on the people and not on the elders. Herschel explains the power of the statement lies in the word, “pursue”. It is our obligation to obey the laws, but we are each obligated to actively pursue fair justice.

The literal meaning of these opening verses is that we will appoint impartial judges or elders that will not take bribes to influence a ruling against an innocent party. I believe these directives were included to set the tone for how society is to function. History has proven that the masses are influenced by their leaders. The tone of these verses insure our leaders set the example of righteous behavior. It is reasonable to conclude that all people should treat others in a fair and impartial manner.

I will take some poetic license, or should I say, Torah license, in my interpretation of the word judge which is the root of the word judgement. When we judge others, we tend to place them in a class and assign them a role based on the stereotypes that we have developed for them. Let’s exam a few of these:

  • We judge our fellow Jews based on their religious beliefs of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. We pass judgement on those that have behaviors and beliefs that are different than ours. Wouldn’t it be better if we were truly עם אחד – One People. Aren’t we all just Jews with differing levels of beliefs?
  • We put ourselves into political buckets of Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and independents. We may judge our friends and colleagues based on where they stand on a political spectrum. Wouldn’t it be better if we classify ourselves as Americans first with the emphasis on improving our country rather than our party?
  • We categorize people based on their socio-economic upbringing, their race, their religion, their sexual preference, their gender, their country of origin and countless other ways. Wouldn’t it be better to hold judgement on others until you know their true character?

One does not need a PhD in history to understand what has happened to societies over the past thousands of years where leaders have not ruled from a position of fairness, have not treated each sect of society as equals, but have ruled based on a preferential outcome for the ruling class. Here are two examples to consider:

  • In the 15th century, the Spanish Inquisition expelled all Jews who would not assimilate into the Christian culture. How would things be different if all were treated without bias and judged fairly?
  • In Germany, the nationalistic Nazi Party slowly gained prominence. This ultra-right-wing party led by Hitler came to power promising to improve society by ridding it of the Jews who were blamed for all the problems. Judgements made by these Nazi leaders had a major impact on modern day Judaism.

Today, there are many leaders around the world that are quick to judge people based on their external characteristics. In many cases when a ruling class causes harm to a specific set of people, these judgements are justified. However, in many instances these rulings resulted in acts of hatred and unfair treatment.

The commandments in Shoftim dictate both a top down and bottom up approach to create a just and fair society. We are fortunate to live in a country which allows each of us as a citizen of the US to publicly represent our position. Dictatorial powers are never in the best interest of the masses. No matter what your political affiliation or level of observance is, we as Jews and as Americans can no longer stand idle and wait for our leadership to act appropriately. Shoftim teaches us that everyone deserves fair and equal treatment, and we must be strong to pursue this treatment.

I close with this verse from Shoftim 16:19 – “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.”

After all, who are we to judge?

Shabbat Shalom

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