What is our Responsibility for Choosing Leaders? – Parshat Shoftim

“You Shall appoint judges and public officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that Adonai Your God is giving to you, and they shall govern the people with due justice (Mishpat Tzedek) You shall not judge unfairly, you shall show no partiality you shall not take bribes for bribes blind the eye of the discerning and upset the plea of the Just. “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof”, Justice, Justice you shall pursue that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

The opening words of Parshat Shoftim remind us, once again, that our relationship to God cannot be separated from our relationship with other human beings. God is the Guarantor of the laws that govern our inter-personal relationships. Implicit in this command is the belief that the earth, including Eretz Yisrael, belongs to God. We are entitled to live here as tenants as long as we are responsible caretakers, in accordance with the expectations of our Landlord, (Adon Olam), the Master of the Universe.

This year, instead of focusing, as I have often done in years past, on the words Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, I find myself wrestling with the issues raised in the first two verses of this Parsha, namely, the choosing of communal leaders and the issue of government officials overtly being cautious, to not show partiality in the administration of Justice and the governing of the community.

Nehama Leibovitz, in her classic commentary on the Torah, points out to us, that on the surface, there is nothing really new in this call to Justice. This political imperative had already been commanded in previous passages of Torah. She quotes as examples the following passages.

In Exodus 23:6 “You shall not wrest the judgment of the poor man in his cause”

In Leviticus 19:15 “You shall not be unrighteous in judgment. You shall not favor the poor nor defer to the powerful. You shall judge your people with justice.

In Deuteronomy 1:17: You shall not show partiality in judgment. Hear out the case of the little man and the great man equally.

Following the rabbinic tradition that there are no unnecessary words in Torah, Professor Leibovitz using both Rashi commentaries, and Talmudic quotes from both tractate Shavuot 30a and Sanhedrin 56b, makes the case that the restatement of the command, to establish a system of Justice here in Deuteronomy 16, is to emphasize that this Mitzvah is the responsibility of the community as a whole in every locality. She goes on to say “we cannot defer the doing of that which is good and upright until some ideal time in the future.” She points us, the readers, to the passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56b, where we are taught that establishing Courts of Justice is one of the seven Noahide laws incumbent upon all humankind.

In re-reading Nehama Leibovitz, a great mid 20th century teacher of Torah, I am reminded that the pursuit of Justice and the responsibility of the community to choose leaders, who will fairly administer justice, and hold those whom we select accountable is an ongoing and binding responsibility for all humanity, including we Jews, wherever we live.

One of the famous retorts of Ed Koch, the long time mayor of New York City was “How’m I doin?” If on the eve of a new year we do a true act of “cheshbon ha nefesh” an accounting of our actions and inactions, by ask ourselves “How are we doing” regarding our choices of political leaders, and our holding them accountable for the administration of Justice, around the world, I cannot in honesty give us a passing grade for the year 5777. These opening words of the Parsha this week remind me that we in democratic societies cannot merely blame our leaders for the injustice of our societies, but rather, share responsibility to hold ourselves accountable for the choices we make. Politically, the decrease in the percentage of citizens in America, Israel and many European nations, who actually vote is, in my view a real danger to not just the democratic process, but also, a contributing factor to the winds of demagoguery that are sweeping across the world. Rabbi Gunther Plaut z”l, in his introduction to Parshat Shoftim, in our Reform movement Torah, A Modern Commentary, teaches that it is by carrying out the commandments outlined in the opening three verses of Shoftim, that “Israel will come closer to the ideal of being God’s kingdom of Priests”

The Pursuit of Justice cannot be disconnected from the responsibility of a community to choose leaders who will govern with “Mishpat Tzedek”, Due Justice.  This month marks the 120th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress where Jews from around the world gathered together to establish rules by which the Jewish People would seek the right of self determination and establish a State in the land of Israel. The vision of Herzl was the inspiration for the Zionist movement. However, it was the “perspiration”  of leaders in the land of Israel such as David ben Gurion and a Reform Rabbi, Judah Magnes, the first president of The Hebrew University, and Diaspora leaders such as Chaim Weizmann, in London and American Reform Jews such as Justice Louis Brandeis and Louis Marshall, and Reform Rabbis led by  Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver who lobbied both British and American government leaders, to recognize the Rights of the Jewish People to political self determination.   In November 2017, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration which, when it was incorporated into the San Remo treaty, of the Peace of Paris, became the International communities’ recognition of the right of the Jewish People to establish a homeland in Palestine. November 29, 2017 is the 70th anniversary of the UN vote on partition of Palestine, which gave both Arabs and Jews the legal authority to establish Independent States in the land known in Eretz Yisrael, which since Roman times has also been known as Palestine.  Here again, David ben Gurion the leader of the pre-State Jewish community in the Land of Israel was greatly assisted by the support of American Jewry. In November 1977, President Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem and the Peace Process between Israel and Egypt was launched. Here we saw two great leaders, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, make historic compromises that led to a Peace Agreement that despite having weathered difficult times for the last 40 years still stands.

Turning back to the powerful opening words of our Parsha, the Hebrew phrase, normally translated as, “You shall appoint” is in the second person singular and literally means “YOU SHALL GIVE TO YOURSELF”. Herein lays the greatest challenge for the 21st century.  Every single one of us is responsible to participate in choosing communal, national and world leaders.

May the year ahead be one in which we Jews around the world, BOTH IN Israel and in the Diaspora commit ourselves to live by the words  of the 13th century Spanish Rabbi, Bachya ben Asher. In his commentary on the phrase “Zedek Tzedek Tirdof”, he taught us: Do not use unjust means to secure Justice. Rather, pursue justice under all circumstances, whether to your profit or loss, whether in words or deeds, whether to Jew or non Jew.”


About the Author:

Rabbi Neal Borovitz, Rabbi Emeritus Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge NJ, USA