פרשת שופטים – Parashat Shoftim
Personal Rights in the Israeli Kingdom
Rabbi Benayahu Bruner
Parashat Shoftim is the Israeli State Sedra. Moshe Rabeinu, denied entrance to the land and active participation in the establishment of the kingdom, instructs the nation soon to enter Eretz Israel about the national establishments they must set up. A justice system is key to national existence in Eretz Israel: שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶיךָ– Judges and officers shall you make for yourself in all your gates – when there is no monarch in Israel, a judge may act as one. The second establishment is the monarchy, or regime: שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ – Appoint a king over you. These two institutions are on the national-existential level, and to them are added two more systems pertaining to the spiritual – priesthood and prophecy: וְזֶה יִהְיֶה מִשְׁפַּט הַכֹּהֲנִים – And this shall be the priest’s due; נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי יָקִים לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ – Hashem your G-d will raise a Prophet up to you from your midst, of your brethren, like me. These four branches comprise the Israeli State: justice, monarchy, priesthood and prophecy. Both bible and Talmud go into great detail about the interaction between the four.
The question is – does the Torah speak of personal rights in the kingdom? Authoritative systems with extensive power may have a negative effect on such rights. Clearly the Torah demands that each and every individual subject themselves to these public authorities – “ תִּתֶּן לְךָ– shall you make for yourself“, “ שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ– appoint over you“, ” אֵלָיו תִּשְׁמָעוּן– to him you shall hearken” – is it not of any concern that the people comprising these systems would neglect to tend to personal rights?
Later on in this week’s Sedra we find the Torah’s sensitivity to the individual’s status and needs. Bloodshed is the worst possible social crime, and the Torah is harsh with every killer, even one who has taken a life by accident. The latter is required to exile to a safe haven and thereby make amends for his sin. Exile, as we find out in our Parasha, also protects this specific killer from avengers:
פֶּן יִרְדֹּף גֹּאֵל הַדָּם אַחֲרֵי הָרֹצֵחַ כִּי יֵחַם לְבָבוֹ וְהִשִּׂיגוֹ כִּי יִרְבֶּה הַדֶּרֶךְ וְהִכָּהוּ נָפֶשׁ וְלוֹ אֵין מִשְׁפַּט מָוֶת
lest the avenger of the blood pursue the slayer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and slay him; whereas he was not worthy of death
The Torah protects the accidental killer’s life, and it is therefore obvious that it should protect the life of all individuals. But the Torah not only guards one’s life, it also protects our possessions, and prohibits trespassing: לֹא תַסִּיג גְּבוּל רֵעֲךָ – you shall bot trespass. The legal system can only try a
person based on the testimony of two witnesses. This is true for most areas of law – be it criminal or pecuniary:
לֹא יָקוּם עֵד אֶחָד בְּאִישׁ לְכָל עָוֹן וּלְכָל חַטָּאת בְּכָל חֵטְא אֲשֶׁר יֶחֱטָא עַל פִּי שְׁנֵי עֵדִים אוֹ עַל פִּי שְׁלֹשָׁה עֵדִים יָקוּם דָּבָר
One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sins: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.
False witnesses, or eye-witnesses who committed perjury, and could thereby have wronged a man, are severely punished for their actions:
וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְאָחִיו וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ: וְהַנִּשְׁאָרִים יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ וְלֹא יֹסִפוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת עוֹד כַּדָּבָר הָרָע הַזֶּה בְּקִרְבֶּךָ
Then shall you do to him, as he had thought to have done to his brother: so shall you put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you.
If by their testimony they had intended to bring about the death of a man, they themselves must be put to death.
In a discretionary war – milchemet reshut – some men are dismissed from service: he who had planted a vineyard and had yet to eat from it (the vineyard is not yet four years old, with the first three years being orla and the fruit forbidden for consumption by the owner, and should its planter go to war he may never enjoy the fruit of his recently planted vines); he who had built a new house and had yet to dedicate it; he who had betrothed a wife and had yet to take her etc. this shows tremendous consideration for personal needs, due to which some are allowed not to participate in the fighting for fear they die during the battle. However, in non-discretionary war – milchemet mitzvah – all go to battle, even newlyweds, as our Rabbis claim in the tractate of Sotah, for in non-discretionary war, the needs of society as a whole supersede those of the individual.
The Sedra ends with the matter of the beheaded heifer – egla arufah. A body is found in the field and no one knows who had slain it. The elders of the nearest town and judges from the High Beth Din approach the scene, “זְקֵנֶיךָ וְשֹׁפְטֶיךָ – your elders and your judges“, as well as priests from Jerusalem. A heifer is brought and beheaded on the banks of a nearby stream. The town elders place their hands on the heifer’s head and say:
יָדֵינוּ לֹא שפכה שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ: כַּפֵּר לְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר פָּדִיתָ ה’ וְאַל תִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל:
Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Be merciful, Hashem, to your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and lay not innocent blood to your people of Israel’s charge.
This ritual is designed to atone for the heinous act committed in their vicinity, and ask Hashem for forgiveness on behalf of the nearby town residents and the nation as a whole. This matter revolves around a John or Jane Doe over the death of whom the public leaders take responsibility and ask for Hashem’s forgiveness. Our Rabbis asked: Would anyone have imagined that the elders of the Beth Din were murderers? But what they mean by saying “our hands have not shed this blood” is that this man or woman will not be dismissed by us without a proper funeral, just as s/he would not have been dismissed without food had s/he come to us when alive. The nation’s leaders are responsible for leading and thereby teaching their people the right attributes – they must ensure that their subjects are fed and secure, for that is the most fundamental existence of both the people and their leadership.
An Israeli kingdom is based on important authoritative systems that ensure both earthly and spiritual existence while taking the individuals’ lives and needs into consideration. Each individual is an entire world, and the concern for one’s life is fundamental. From here on the Torah will continue to guide us towards doing justice in all aspects of life: צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף– that which is altogether just you shall follow.
Rabbi Benayahu Bruner is the rabbi of the Safed national-religious community, and heads a Beth Din for pecuniary affairs in Haifa and the north