Summary: Shoftim is the 5th parasha in the Book of Debarim. It concentrates on the rules for establishing communal life and continues Moshe’s final speeches to theBnei Yisrael as they prepared to enter Cana’an.
Shoftim begins with the command to appoint a system of justice – judges & law-enforcement officers – charged to protect the public interest and not be corrupted by personal gain. Bnei Yisrael were then reminded not to worship idolatry or offer blemished animals in their Divine worship. For those who took cases to the place where Kohanim, Levi’im and judges resided, there was an obligation to heed the words of the authorities and not act in contempt of court.
Shoftim continues with rules applying to appointing a Jewish king in the land ofCana’an. He mustn’t be consumed by passions to amass horses, wives or wealth, so his heart won’t be diverted from focusing on G-d. Instead he was to study the Law and serve as a moral example to the nation.
The third and fourth aliyot in Shoftim concern the role of Kohen & Levi – not to receive any land inheritance, but instead to be given gifts from the agriculture and flocks of the landed tribes. The tribes were also proscribed from using any substitute spiritual intermediaries for worship.
Next Moshe described the prophetic chain – that G-d would appoint a successor to lead the people. The people needed a procedure for discerning true from false prophecy.
The fifth aliyah lists the command to set up 3 cities of refuge – places providing safe haven to the accidental murder and protection from any bereaved family member seeking revenge. To ensure the cities’ integrity, the intentional murderer was denied refuge and instead handed over to their avengers.
The sixth aliyah addresses the judicial process for accepting witnessed testimony, A minimum of 2 valid witnesses were required to ascertain judgment. If witnesses perjured themselves, their punishment would be the same as what they intended to falsify. Shoftim continues with military exemptions for those who built a new house, planted a new vineyard, became engaged to be married or were simply too frightened to go out to war.
The parasha concludes with ancient rules of engagement in war. The nation had to seek a treaty of peace with their enemy. If the treaty was refused, the town would fall under siege, and once breached all warring-men would be killed, while women and children along with assets would be taken as spoils of war.
But there were several nations to be eradicated entirely from Cana’an. Toward those 7 idolatrous nations, no mercy was to be shown – not to men, women or children [N.B. words too harsh for our moral sensitivities today].
Finally, Shoftim ends with the Eglah Arufah, the ritual for a corpse found outside the city limits. The nearby city elders would gather and break the neck of a young calf, then all would profess innocence to the cause of death. (These same words are used today when leaving a Jewish cemetery ‘Our hands have not spilled this blood nor have our eyes seen’ (Debarim 21:7).
We were upset to read this week of the terrorist bombing in the Thai Erawan Shrine that killed at least 20 innocent people. We pray for the recovery of the injured and wish comfort to the families of those who died.
In the week where Parashat Shoftim compassionately provides ‘cities of refuge’ for the inadvertent murderer and the Eglah Arufah ritual of innocence. It frightens us to see CCTV images of a human being consciously – without empathy or guilt – depositing a bomb in a public space and walking away to his own safety. An act of premeditated hatred and cruelty, it’s roots date back to the first fratricide (Cain killing Abel), reminding us why the Divine principles of respecting life and living in peace are still so important today.