Ezra Blaut: Judges and Kings (Parashat Shoftim)

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In Parshat Shoftim, we have many laws mostly pertaining to order and structure and the laws for those people who maintain such laws. The commandments to put people in leadership come in two forms. One, we must have them to have a functional society. Two, you may follow your desires to have them, but you must go about it in a specific way. The language at the beginning of the parsha is

שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃

Judges and officials, put them in every settlement that Hashem your God has given you, to govern and judge for the people with fair justice.   (Devarim 16:1)

There is a lot to point out here. For starters, תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙– we put them there. We should choose the people in charge; i.e. this is a democracy of some kind. I find a parallel as well with נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖, that the land that Hashem gave to us, we give to the officials to rule with fairness. Not only that, but the words of בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ, every city or settlement cannot be without their officials. Keep this verse in mind as we look at a later verse in the text:

כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣א אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֣בְתָּה בָּ֑הּ וְאָמַרְתָּ֗ אָשִׂ֤ימָה עָלַי֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר סְבִיבֹתָֽי׃

If, after you have entered the land that Hashem 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,”

שׂ֣וֹם תָּשִׂ֤ים עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְחַ֛ר יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ בּ֑וֹ מִקֶּ֣רֶב אַחֶ֗יךָ תָּשִׂ֤ים עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֶ֔לֶךְ לֹ֣א תוּכַ֗ל לָתֵ֤ת עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ אִ֣ישׁ נָכְרִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־אָחִ֖יךָ הֽוּא׃

You shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by Hashem your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman

(Devarim 17:14-15)

These verses are fascinating. The king must be picked after you are settled in the land. But here they are not just picked, but picked by Hashem. These verses emphasize that a king is not a Jewish idea; if you are looking at the other nations and want to be like them and have a king, then this is how you do it. This is indicated by the word choice of שׂ֣וֹם תָּשִׂ֤ים as opposed to תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ like in the text before.

Verse 15 then provides qualifications for the king. But why must we have additional qualifications for kings, if Hashem is the one picking him?

Ramban explains that all appointments must be “approved” by Hashem because if Hashem did not will it, it would not happen. He quotes Bava Batra saying “even a superintendent over a well is appointed from the heavens.” Ramban also says that the passing of kingship must still have God’s approval. I believe the text is serving as a reminder that the real, true king, no matter how much power a human king has, is Hashem.

I want to draw attention to the difference between a king’s appointment and that of the judges. The judges and officials are needed. We must place them as part of settling the land. The kings, on the other hand are extra. וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֣בְתָּה–once its all done, if you find it necessary. Hashem gave us mitzvot and halacha, but we must enforce them. We must learn and safeguard all that’s placed before us. But a king? We already have one. Hashem is our king; we do not need an earthly one. However, Hashem acknowledges that human nature wants to place an earthly being above the layman to make choices. Hashem reminds us that human kings are still beneath Him and no king can rule without God allowing it.

CBMA is filling a void in Atlanta, educating young adults in Torah. The modern world has enough “kings,” appointed top-down over their constituents. What we need is more people who know how to judge, people with a command over Torah. The Mishna in Avot (6:6) tells us that “Torah is greater than the priesthood or sovereignty.” Kings, I think, are role models above the everyday man. Judges take the role of an intimate observer and address personal cases directly. I find kings more passive and judges more active. CBMA’s Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Pill on Wednesday night said that, in his opinion, a Rabbi’s job is to be needed as little as possible; to educate. The layman must understand the halacha not just in concept but in practice, and that is what halacha really is: a process that requires active study and synthesis with other aspects of Judaism and with circumstances of one’s life. Once one learns to engage with the text in an active way, once one understands the full nature of the halachic process, they can judge each case with מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק, with fair justice.

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