Parashat Shoftim 5774 – On National Unity and Self-Criticism

וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ

 

Parashat Shoftim begins by introducing the leadership of the judges and officers of the Nation of Israel (Devarim 16:18). The rest of the parashah is spent discussing various legal situations, when it is appropriate to go to which leaders, such as the King, whose position and laws are also introduced (17:14-20). The first case introduced is the case of an idolater found “in the midst of” the people, who is to be executed if his transgression is attested to by at least two witnesses (17:2-7). This case is closed by a final condition of the execution, namely, that it has to be initiated by the witnesses. “The hand of the witnesses shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people” (17:7). This condition seems a bit odd. The witnesses just did a favor, of sorts, for society by enabling the functioning of the judicial system, and suddenly they are saddled with additional, not to mention unpleasant, responsibilities. A similar situation is found in 13:7-12, where a person’s closest companion suddenly attempts to draw them into idolatry, and not only do they have to ensure that the person is killed, but they have to strike first. “For you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people” (13:10). Both of these oddities, however, can be explained by taking a look at some larger linguistic phenomenon, and the ideas they introduce, throughout the laws of Parashat Shoftim and Sefer Devarim.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by the archetypical legal case, introduced almost immediately after the command to appoint officers and judges in 16:18.

If there is found in your midst, within any of your gates which the Lord your God gave you, a man or woman that does that which is evil in the sight of the Lord your God… and it is told to you, and you hear it, then you shall inquire diligently, and, behold, if it is true, and the matter is certain that such abomination was done in Israel; then you shall bring forth that man or that woman, who has done this evil thing, to your gates and you shall stone them with stones, the man or the woman, that they die. By the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death; at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death. The hand of the witnesses shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people, and you shall burn the evil from your midst. (17:2-7)

The first thing that’s notable here is that in contrast to the discussion of the judicial system as it is described in Shemot 19, the case does not begin with the bringing of a query before the judge, but with a wrongdoer that is “found” in the midst of the people. Only when the case cannot be solved is it taken to higher authorities to adjudicate (17:8-13). This is connected to one of the unique features of Sefer Devarim’s style, the emphasis on things happening “בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ,”“in your gates.” The word “שְׁעָרֶיךָ” shows up exactly one time in the Torah outside of Sefer Devarim, in Shemot 20:10, whereas in Sefer Devarim alone it shows up a grand total of twenty-seven times. The laws of Sefer Devarim put a lot of emphasis on the way things will occur at the various Israelite towns and cities throughout the Land of Israel. This is due to the focus on centralization that simultaneously appears in the laws of Sefer Devarim, as shown by the predominance of the phrase “הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְ׳הוָה,” “the place that ‘א will choose.” All of the proper judicial and religious institutions are located at one central location, which is something that works fine when you’re traveling in the desert, but not when you’re scattered in permanent cities throughout the Land of Israel. Thus Sefer Devarim indicates that the legal system, rather than being a matter of top-down enforcement, is something that has to come from the people. The people are responsible for making sure that the laws are enforced and that the system works.

Intimately related to this is the way that many of the legal cases of Sefer Devarim conclude with the rather unique phrase, “וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ,” “And you shall burn the evil from your midst.” In the basic legal case from 17:2-7, this phrase appears at the very end of the passage, but it also referenced at the very beginning with the phrase, “כִּי-יִמָּצֵא בְקִרְבְּךָ,” “If there is found in your midst.” Barring a few slight differences, the phrase “וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ” appears 10 times throughout chapters 13-24 of Sefer Devarim, in a variety of legal contexts, from idolatry (13:6) to the judicial process (17:12; 19:18) to kidnapping (24:7). Bnei Yisrael are one nation with one “midst,” and where evil is allowed to fester, the nation rots from within. The purpose of the judicial system is maintaining the legal and moral uprightness of the Nation of Israel[1]. Justice isn’t about ‘א, it’s about national integrity. Part of maintaining an upright and lawful nation is making sure that evil is not allowed to fester and grow within the heart of the society.Caring for the Nation of Israel is not a task relegated to it’s leaders. The unity of the nation that requires each citizen to be responsible for the whole. Therefore, when a person is confronted with such evil, they cannot simply ignore it, but instead they must stand up and confront it, as each person is responsible for this. It is this incredible responsibility that is the basis for the law of “The hand of the witnesses shall be upon him first to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people” (17:7). When a person “finds” (17:2) evil in the midst of the nation, they are responsible for ensuring it is removed.

It is unfortunately clear that the Jewish People enjoy no innate moral superiority. Our communities certainly have our share of issues. This doesn’t make us bad, it just makes us human. The responsibility is on us however, to stand up for how great our society can be. Achdut and Ahavat Yisrael are not reasons to shy away from being self-critical as a nation, they are reasons to embrace being self-critical. In Sefer Devarim the responsibility of the individual is emphasized due to the physical remoteness of the Judicial system; In our times, we don’t even have a proper Judicial system to be distant from[2]. Our Ahavat Yisrael, our sense of national unity, should motivate us to try and drive the Nation of Israel to new heights of morality, not to withhold our critiques. We are our brothers’ keepers, and we all bear a responsibility for the nation. Simultaneously, any self-critiques of the Nation of Israel must be motivated by a sense of unity and love. We are our brother’s keeper exactly because they are our brothers. Driving Bnei Yisrael to be the best can be is a communal act of love. The prophets were perhaps the best example of an authority attempting to improve the moral nature of Israel and, on the whole, they failed dramatically. Despite the public recriminations of the prophets, Bnei Yisrael did not repent. Top-down enforcement has never effected great change in Israel; It is average people creating a moral atmosphere in their daily lives that awakens the heart of the nation. If we want to truly be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation (Shemot 19:6), we have to do our part to make sure that the nation lives up to the moral and legal requirements of ‘א’s Covenant.

 

[1] Notably, when the judges and officers are appointed (16:18-20) in this context, the reason given for avoiding bribery is that it corrupts the wise and the sagely, as opposed to at the beginning of Sefer Devarim where the reason is that Justice belongs to ‘א, and so to corrupt it is to corrupt that which is His (1:17).

[2] This is in terms of a Bet Din system, of which we have a facsimile today, but we lack authentic judicial leadership. Secular courts are a separate issue.

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