Torah Portion Shoftim Notes
Sandy Kress

Introduction - this portion is fundamentally about justice. There is a great deal about judges and just judging. We will focus almost entirely on the primacy of justice in God’s expectations of us, acknowledging what the great writer Heine once said, “since the time of Abraham, Justice has spoken with a Hebrew accent.”

Or, as we find in Midrash Rabbah, there’s a teaching from Avot that justice is one one of the three legs of the world, the others being truth and peace. If one perverts justice, one causes the world to shake. This is further learned from Psalms 89:15, righteousness and justice are Your throne’s foundation; kindness and truth precede Your countenance.

We’re going to do something very different today. Instead of our typical rather broad journey with a few dives, the text itself invites us to go very deep into a fundamental idea - the meaning of justice, or as we’ll see in a moment, righteousness. The text makes the invitation to us through a powerful double expression in one of the portion’s first verses - tzedek, tzedek, you shall pursue. This is typically translated as - justice, justice, you shall pursue. But, as profound and simple as that seems, it’s complex and utterly wonderful!

Why the double expression? What does it mean? Can we carry the lessons we learn from our exploration to finding greater meaning in other Bible study? Can we carry the lessons of a deep understanding of justice and its requirements to our lives? These are the main questions for today. 

Buckle up!  This is unlike any ride we’ve taken.

I.        Read 16:18-20. 

18 Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every city that the Lord your God gives you. They must judge the people fairly. 19 Don’t delay justice; don’t show favoritism. Don’t take bribes because bribery blinds the vision of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. 20 Righteousness! Pursue righteousness so that you live long and take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

It’s always fascinating to see a double in the Bible. And this may be the most fascinating of them all. We’ll dwell on it a bit. Why the double of justice, justice? There are so many possibilities. Let’s get started with yours, but first here’s an important fact for you to ponder: the Hebrew word can mean justice, but it also means other things. It’s not mishpat, the word that one often sees for justice or judgment. Rather the word here is tzedek, which more often means what? Righteousness. In any event, why would we have tzedek repeated?

(A. Justice alone, or something just altogether, or for emphasis? 

B. Ramban: judges are to judge people with righteous judgment AND we are to go constantly from our place to the place of the sages. What could this mean? 

Perhaps we expect judges to decide with tzedek, and we are to learn and practice tzedek in our own lives, helped by being near, and learning of God’s way from, learned sages. 

C. Ibn Ezra - one should pursue justice whether it is to one’s advantage or loss. 

D. Just ends and just means. 

E. Midrash of Rabbi Nechunya Ben Hakanah - if we judge ourselves as if we give account to God, we live. Otherwise, God judges against us. 

F. In a similar vein, the first is justice in this world which merits justice in the world to come. 

G. Or several combos: 1. one is for the judges; one, for the officers. 2. one is for the judges; one is for those appointing the officers. 3. one is for the written law; one is for the oral law. 4) one is to prevent straying to the right; one is to prevent straying to the left.

H. How about this: one justice is formal justice and the other is a minimal amount of justice all need to live. Or: formal justice and the justice called for by compassion, mercy, and reconciliation/mediation needed for people to live well and resolve matters, say, short of going to court. 

I. Chasidic: one can never stand still in such matters, so the first is about getting justice underway, and pursuit involves the second, the justice that is engendered in continued effort. 

J. Or are we being precipitous to answer at all so quickly? Read verse 20 again. See anything you might have missed. 

Justice, justice is required so that we may thrive AND occupy the land. How could that be interpreted? 

Possibly, the first justice, the one crucial to thriving, has to do with our well being, in our dealings with others, following the right paths in human dealing. Perhaps the second justice relates to occupying the land and goes to the lesson we’ve learned many times - our continuing to live in the land requires being dutiful to God and living true to our covenant with the Divine.

K. Here’s another idea. Read verse 19 again. Do you see something there that might relate to what we’re learning about “double justice”?

The verse really says two things: do not wrest (or pervert) justice (really judgment, this time, mishpat) AND do not respect persons (through favoritism or bribery). Both are about justice, but they have somewhat different possible meanings. Maybe the double of justice is designed to teach us to pay attention to each and the relationship, but discrete differences, between, each. Do you see?

Let’s turn back and read this mitzvah in Leviticus to get a better understanding. Read Leviticus 19:15. Does this help make it clearer? How? 

15 You must not act unjustly in a legal case. Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly. 

One level of justice is a statement of the basic principle - do not do unrighteousness in judgment. The other level of justice is more specific, not to show favoritism whether the person being judged is poor or rich, whether he/she evokes sympathy or has power. By steering to the general principle AND applying the specifics, we judge in tzedek, tzedek.)

L. One last exercise in this episode of doubles.

Read 17:8.

If some legal dispute in your cities is too difficult for you to decide—say, between different kinds of bloodshed, different kinds of legal ruling, or different kinds of injury—then take it to the location the Lord your God selects. 

Doubles again! This time of blood, case, and injury. What’s the meaning here?

(In each type of case, it is essential to see the differences in each, though they’re topically akin! One can be a “case,” and another can be a “case,” too, but they can be so different that, among other things, they’re both to be judged at different levels within the judicial system. Such is the nature of justice: looking beneath surface similarities to find very different realities that demand different treatment.) 

II. Ok, now that we’re trained in many of the possibilities of these doubles, let’s go on a serious adventure! Ready? Let’s go to the verses in  the prophets that lead straight to the Haftarah that is actually paired with today’s Torah portion. Let’s read Isaiah 51:1-7. How does this passage inform our study today? 

(A. The Bible tells us it’s addressed to those who follow tzedek and those who seek God. That’s a double description of us. We live in tzedek here in our lives. And God holds us near 

B. This is at the core of the covenant with God, and our blessings from God. 

C. This teaching is central to the light we carry.

D. This relates to God’s righteousness and indeed God’s salvation. 

E. Knowing and living in God’s tzedek, we find hope.) 

III. (Don’t read, but just mention quickly.) 

A. Now just for fun, let’s look at verses in and around the haftarah for today: Isaiah 51:9 and 52:1 (a double of oori, oori, or awake, awake!; 51:1 and 51:7 (a double of sheemoo, sheemoo, or to listen); 51:12 (a double of anochee, or I am); 51:17 (hittoruhree, hittoruhree, or rouse yourself); and 52:11 (sooroo, sooroo, or to turn). Wow - an explosion of doubles! 

Recall this is in Second Isaiah where the prophet both recalls the waywardness of the people that led to exile yet also sees and speaks of a restoration and glorious and redeemed future for them. 

B. Why do you think there would be doubles of awaken, arouse, listen, turn, I am here? 

(Aren’t these the verbs of finding our way back to God? And aren’t there all sorts of double notions to that? In fact, as we discussed earlier, isn’t this whole matter of God’s righteousness both in the form of consequences for straying AND welcoming us back in love and covenant one of the most powerful explanations of the double tzedek? 

This is especially important in the Jewish annual cycle in that we’re beginning to prepare for the High Holidays, when turning and returning are principle themes of the season.)

IV. Here’s a working hypothesis, based on what we’ve studied already today, that we might use for our final major exercise: the double of justice is intended for us to look at both the front and back sides of God’s instructions for living to get to deeper meaning. In other words, there may be righteousness in the initial effort but an additional form of it in the rounding out or completion of God’s expectations of us. 

Let’s read some pairs (not exactly doubles) in verses right ahead in the portion and apply what we learned about doubles to get to a fuller understanding of them. 

A.      Read 17:2-6. What’s the dual nature here?

If someone, whether male or female, is found in your community—in one of the cities the Lord your God is giving you—who does evil in the Lord your God’s eyes, by breaking God’s covenant, by following and serving other gods, and by bowing down to them, to the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly bodies that I haven’t permitted— and you hear news about it, then you must look into this situation very carefully. And if it’s definitely true that this detestable thing was done in Israel, then you must bring out the man or woman who has done this evil thing to the gates of the city. Stone that person until he or she is dead. Capital punishment must be decided by two or three witnesses. No one may be executed on the basis of only one testimony.

Capital punishment must be decided by two or three witnesses. No one may be executed on the basis of only one test]

(We’re punished for idolatry and wrongdoing BUT not without the benefit of a rigorous due process.)

B.     Read 17:14-19. What’s the dual nature here? 

14 Once you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you and you have taken possession of it and settled down in it, you might say: “Let’s appoint a king over us, as all our neighboring nations have done.” 15 You can indeed appoint over you a king that the Lord your God selects. You can appoint over you a king who is one of your fellow Israelites. You are not allowed to appoint over you a foreigner who is not one of your fellow Israelites. 16 That granted, the king must not acquire too many horses, and he must not return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, because the Lord told you: “You will never go back by that road again.” 17 The king must not take numerous wives so that his heart doesn’t go astray. Nor can the king acquire too much silver and gold. 18 Instead, when he sits on his royal throne, he himself must write a copy of this Instruction on a scroll in the presence of the levitical priests. 19 That Instruction must remain with him, and he must read in it every day of his life so that he learns to revere the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this Instruction and these regulations, by doing them, 

(We may have a powerful king, BUT the king must be limited in wealth, power, possessions, and submission to God.) 

C.     Read 18:1-5. What’s the dual nature here? 

Neither the levitical priests nor any Levite tribe member will have a designated inheritance in Israel. They can eat the sacrifices offered to the Lord, which are the Lord’s portion, but they won’t share an inheritance with their fellow Israelites. The Lord alone is the Levites’ inheritance—just as God promised them.

Now this is what the priests may keep from the people’s sacrifices of oxen or sheep: They must give the priest the shoulder, the jaws, and the stomach. You must also give the priest the first portions of your grain, wine, and oil, and the first of your sheep’s shearing because the Lord your God selected Levi from all of your tribes to stand and minister in the Lord’s name—both him and his descendants for all time. 

(The Levites get no territory for themselves, BUT they’re entitled to support from all others’.)

D.     Read 19:15-20. What’s the dual nature here? 

15 A solitary witness against someone in any crime, wrongdoing, or in any sort of misdeed that might be done is not sufficient. The decision must stand by two or three witnesses.16 Now if a spiteful witness comes forward against someone, so as to testify against them falsely, 17 the two persons who have a legal suit must stand before the Lord, before the priests, and before the judges that are in office at that time. 18 The judges will look into the situation very carefully. If it turns out that the witness is a liar—that the witness has given false testimony against his fellow Israelite— 19 then you must do to him what he had planned to do to his fellow Israelite. Remove such evil from your community! 20 The rest of the people will hear about this and be afraid. They won’t do that sort of evil thing among you again.

(Witnesses must come forward to effect justice, BUT false accusations will be bring to the false witness the same punishment sought for the accused.)

Now we come to one of the greatest (and most misunderstood) doubles in the text. We’ve studied it before and have learned what it means and what it doesn’t mean. Let’s look at it again. Read 19:21. What even more famous double is this double built on?

 21 Show no mercy on this point: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot. 

(Love your neighbor as yourself! Love (self) - love (other). 

One looks at, and cares for, one’s own interest and position, sees how it informs us about another’s interest, seeks to understand the other’s position, and then creates a duty to the other based on helping the other fulfill his/her own interest. This principle of righteousness applies to the mitzvah here: as we studied before, if I cause another’s loss of an eye, the righteous result is that I owe the other the value of that eye in damages.)

Conclusion - we’ve learned a lot about righteousness and justice today. I hope all these exercises are helpful in understanding the significance Moses (and God) place on them. I hope, especially through the use of doubles, that you’ve also developed some tools and gotten some practical lessons in how God teaches us to understand and apply the principles of justice and righteousness in our daily lives. 

Torah Portion Shoftim Notes

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