Parshas Shoftim

Mind the Gap

As part of the functioning society the Torah seeks to create, the Torah requires us to have a judiciary to interpret the law, and an executive to apply it:

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ – You shall place judges and police within all your gates… (16:18)

As with many mitzvos, the Torah speaks to individuals here, and not the community. Does the Torah expect each of us to individually to create a roster of judges and a police force?

While the simple reading is about judges and police, it is not simply a law about the branches of government.

The Shelah instead reads it as Judaism’s source for the principle of personal development. Building a great society starts with individuals. The mitzvah is given to “you” (second person possessive) because nobody else could judge or police you in the way only you are able.

R’ Yisrael Salanter taught that our natural intuition is the only judge and policeman we ever need.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that this is a microcosm of the Jewish People’s mission. In our personal lives and in our communities, we have a duty to determine whether there is a gap between where we are and where we ought to be, then taking the necessary steps to bridge it.

Because if we’re tuned in, we know what’s wrong, and we know how to fix it too.

Not On My Watch

The Torah’s laws serve the purpose of forming a cohesive and fair society, where members of the community work together to build a better world. The Torah anticipates that sometimes we will fail. People will break the law, and there are remedies available.

But sometimes, there is no remedy, such as a cold case – a crime that remains unsolved and has no leads. Unsolved murders are particularly dangerous for society, for the obvious reason that the killer remains unknown and at large. Should such an event take place in or near a Jewish community, the Torah requires us to be vigilant, and prescribes a ritual to undertake.

The leaders of a city have to take a calf that has never worked, to land that has never been ploughed, break it’s neck, and make a public declaration:

וְעָנוּ, וְאָמְרוּיָדֵינוּ, לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶתהַדָּם הַזֶּה, וְעֵינֵינוּ, לֹא רָאוּ. כַּפֵּר לְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁרפָּדִיתָ, ה, וְאַלתִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי, בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְנִכַּפֵּר לָהֶם, הַדָּם.  וְאַתָּה, תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִימִקִּרְבֶּךָכִּיתַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר, בְּעֵינֵי ה – They shall speak and say: “Our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes were blind. Hashem, forgive Israel, your redeemed people, and do not tolerate innocent blood to remain among Israel, your people.” And the blood shall be forgiven. Purge innocent blood from among you … (21:7-9)

The Torah doesn’t tolerate unsolved crimes. The imagery of asking God forgiveness for innocent blood is especially powerful.

It seems odd that the leaders have to publicly explain that they did not kill somebody – we don’t seriously entertain that possibility for a moment.

So what is the point of the ceremony?

The Chasam Sofer notes that when they say “Our eyes were blind,” it’s not simply saying that they didn’t witness the crime – it’s a confession that the crime happened on their watch.

The Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah expects standards in a community to come from the top. If a murder takes place on your doorstep, the Torah radically suggests there is a shortcoming in the community as well, having not done enough to prevent it.

In that case, the ceremony is not a declaration of innocence; it is a public declaration of guilt.

R’ Chaim Brown notes that while we don’t often have to deal with a literal murder, there are plenty of similar scenarios where the lesson is as relevant as ever.

Chazal often compares vulnerable classes to the dead; the poor and childless, among others.

There are vulnerable people in our circles. With no particular institution in mind, how many children don’t have schools to attend, or get bullied? How many families can’t bear the financial burden of living an observant Jewish lifestyle?

One of the central concepts this mitzva reinforces is that we have a covenantal obligation to each other, and the Torah does not look away when vulnerable people are ignored on our watch –  וְאַלתִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי, בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ.

The Torah’s vision is that we stand up for each other, and especially those who cannot stand up for themselves.