Parashat Shoftim (5779 – 2019)
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Moses exhorts us to establish a complex organization for dispensing justice. He envisions many local courts, with their own presiding judges, set up “in all your dwelling places.” (Deut. 16:18) And he also foresees the need for a Supreme Court or Court of Appeals, based “in the place that the Eternal, your Almighty God chooses.” (Deut. 17:8) Such a layered structure of judges echoes the advice first offered by Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, some 40 years before.
Moses explains that sometimes a conflict will arise surrounding a question that will be too difficult for the local courts to resolve. Then “you shall come to the Levitical priests and the judge who shall be in those days, and you shall seek [it] out, and they will tell you the word of fair judgment.” (v. 9) After their verdict is delivered, one is commanded to follow it, “not to deviate from what they tell you to the right or the left.” (v. 11)
These verses, although they serve to emphasize the authority of the High Court, actually exist is some tension with each other. The latter verse demands absolute obedience to the court’s dictates. But the earlier verse includes a word that seems a bit unnecessary and that opens up the possibility for questions. The word is “v’darashta,” meaning “and you shall seek out” or, “investigate” or, perhaps, “demand [to know].” At first glance this word could easily be left out of the verse. It could adequately have told us that, when there is a dispute that the local authorities cannot resolve, then: “You shall come [to the High Court] and they will tell you their fair judgment.” Why the inclusion of the word “v’darashta”? What is it that you are additionally demanding beyond your appeal for the court to hear and decide your case?
It is additionally curious that this term has already been used to refer to judicial procedure. It is the court, with its legal arms, that investigates (- see, e.g., Lev. 10:16; Deut. 13:15 and 17:4) But here, on the contrary, this investigating, or demanding an answer, is given over to the person who approaches the court. Some readers therefore understand this to mean that each party shall work hard at offering before the court the best legal arguments they can muster. The court will hear those arguments and then hand down its decision.
But there is another possibility. We have encountered this word before, used as a description of the drive to seek God. Rebecca, when she suffers in her pregnancy, goes “to seek out (lidrosh) the Eternal.” (Gen. 25:22 – and see also Deut. 4:29 and 12:30!) Understood this way, Moses imagines that the disputants are coming to the court with a great sense of urgency and the need for an answer that will satisfy a deeper need than just the need for legal clarity. They wish to be convinced that the law is not just a societally imposed norm. They wish to feel that the law is God’s word. This places an additional and very difficult burden upon the court. It cannot simply rely on its authority. It must also earn the trust of the people that it is applying its authority in the true service of what God wants.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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