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Parshat Shoftim

August 21, 2020

This week’s Parsha, Parshat Shoftim, contains important issues, as crucial today as they were in ancient times. In the very first verse, the idea of a police force and judges is introduced, the first mention of police in history:

“שֹֽׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָֽׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק”

“You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your G-d, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment.”

From the beginning of this passage, G-d makes it very clear that a police force is compulsory in any city in which the tribes settle. However, it is also imperative that these appointed officials act fairly and justly. Police are an integral part of modern-day society, and they have the same role now as was given in the bible—to remove those who do wrong, making sure that all cases are properly and fairly investigated. Recent events involving police in America have shaken the world and called into question the role that the police should play in society. Some have argued that police around the globe have too much power. In many places we are blessed to live in a society in which the police force acts justly and kindly, yet we also need to be wary of those who abuse their power and act immorally. Judaism makes it very clear that those police officers who do not live up to the high standards imposed upon them should have no role in enforcing the law in our society.

If we move onto the next verse, we see the iconic phrase, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” There are many examples in the bible when repetition is used.  For example, when G-d calls out to Abraham, as he is about to sacrifice Isaac, he uses his name twice, like a mother would call her baby’s name twice, as a symbol of affection and care. But in this context, why would G-d use the word justice twice? Many people claim that the ends justify the means and one may sin to achieve a moral and correct outcome. However, that is simply incorrect. While seeking justice, you must always act justly, both in outcome and in deed there must be only justice because in Judaism the end never justifies the means. It is for this reason that the word justice is repeated twice, once for the means and once for the ends.

The Torah similarly takes a harsh stance on bribery. Even if the outcome is just and righteous, if the means are immoral and corrupt, then the ends cannot be justified. As the Torah says, “You shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words.”

The story is told of a court case that once took place in front of a great rabbi. Mid-way through the hearing, one of the parties requested a break. A member of one side of the dispute left the room and found the rabbi’s coat in the hallway. He quickly slipped a sum of money into the pocket, as a bribe and returned to the court room. When the case resumed, the rabbi suddenly experienced a shift in his thought process. He was confused and could not understand why he had suddenly changed his mind. A few days later, he came across the sum of money in his coat pocket. He realized he had been bribed and although it was unknown to him at the time, the subtle power of the bribe had indeed affected him quite profoundly.

Although this tale may just be a simple fable, it teaches us that a bribe can be powerful and may have a lasting effect. We are forbidden to neither take nor receive bribes even when their intent is simply to reinforce the correct ruling.

The theme of this week’s Parsha is that enforcing the law without the pursuit of righteousness is not enough. We must always pursue justice, but never at the expense of righteousness and morality. This applies to the police forces, to judges, and most importantly to each one of us in our daily lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jacob Goldwater, BBYO UKI

Read commentary on this week's Parsha from BBYO teens around the world.

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