Parshat Shoftim is concerned with the structures of governance of biblical society and their just operation: the government and its military, the courts and the religious authorities.
Having emerged from the foreign slavery of Egypt and now attempting to maintain the freedom achieved in the Exodus, the parshah is concerned with ensuring the fair functioning of these three institutions. That is, the Torah explicitly limits exploitative possibilities by separating the centres of power and placing constraints that keep these institutions functioning appropriately.
It first discusses the legal system, stressing that judges must decide cases justly, show no favoritism and take no bribes. We learn that it is only when judges are bound by such rules that their decisions are legitimate and can be enforced. Next, the parshah turns to the institution of kingship. We are told that an Israelite king must regularly review the law to which he is bound and not “act haughtily toward his fellows.” Moreover, the Torah particularly instructs that the king should not multiply his horses, women or wealth. The laws of the Torah, which he has to study throughout his live, will insure that he is humble and never arrogant toward his people.
The third—the priesthood— is discussed next. The parshah states that the Kohens and Levites, who conduct and oversee the ritual observance in the Temple, have “no territorial portion” of their own in Israel but rather must live off the offerings made by the Israelites to God. Here, the centre of religious power is prevented from amassing economic power and is forced to live off the generosity of the rest of the nation. The nation’s religious leaders, themselves the centre of great power, are prevented from exploiting their rank.
These limitations are designed to keep biblical society functioning altruistically and without corruption, to distinguish it from the unjust governance of Egyptian slavery. Sadly, this lesson has been lost in much in our days. The centralization of all power in one person, coupled with the limitless use of power, results in unjust and unbearable societies. We witness the results in the news daily and grieve for the communities struggling under the burden of such oppressive and unfettered governance.
Yet this week’s parshah offers a glimpse of a society of a different order. Through promoting the development of civil society, it is on us to help to bring into reality the promise of our parshah: a just society of limited power held by many.
[Sources: AJWS On1Foot Torah Commentary; The Jewish study bible.]
Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 (Plaut p. 1294; Hertz p.820); Maftir (Plaut p.1305; Hertz p.835)
Haftarah Isaiah 51:1-52:12 (Plaut p.1316; Hertz p.835). The 4th of 7 Haftarot of Consolation read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah.