The Book of Devarim contains Moses’ legacy and last words of rebuke, encouragement and advice to Bnei Yisrael, summed up by the command in this week’s parsha “to obey God and to do what is right”.
Parshat Shoftim sets out a hierarchy of civic leadership and authority for the transition that will follow after Moses’ death, beginning with judges to the authoritative roles of kings, priests & Levites, prophets and finally, the role of police in pre-screening candidates for the military draft.
All communities need to address the mundane aspects of life, and the Torah’s approach is to empower individuals, protect human rights and proscribe inappropriate behaviours.
Three related cases in Shoftim involve laws about cities of refuge, laying siege during war, and breaking the neck of the Hefer (Eglah Arufah). Contrary to expectations, in all three the Torah protects the rights of the excluded, the subjugated and the alienated – the unintentional murderer, the war captive and the abandoned corpse.
It is tempting to see civic authority as entirely justice-based and bureaucratically lacking compassion – all for the sake of maintaining social order. But, in a strictly just society, the rights of the disenfranchised can be easily trampled.
It takes Divine wisdom to temper righteousness with compassion. We may wish to remind ourselves of God’s empathetic justice as we think about our own social cohesion during these upcoming days of awe.
- Rabbi Jeff Berger is interfaith adviser for Mitzvah Day