Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Don’t let the lack of a narrative story or the densely packed compilation of laws and commandments fool you, parashat Shoftim, is all about balance. Balance of power that is.
“Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof … Justice, justice you shall pursue!” declares Moses near the beginning of our portion. [Deut. 16:20] The creation of a just community is one of the core purposes of Torah, and shoftim offers profound clarity on how to succeed – beginning with a separation of powers.
First, we are commanded to establish an impartial justice system, in which judges may not accept bribes. [Deut. 16:19] Second, we are allowed to freely choose our king [executive] with the following limitations in place: the king may not set himself above the people and must look after the needs of the poor, may not amass wealth or power, and is subject to the same laws of Torah as the rest of Israel. [Deut. 17:15-20] Third, the priesthood will remain “in attendance for service in the name of the Eternal for all time.” [Deut. 18:5] In effect, this creates three separate and independent centers of power, which function as checks and balances against each other in the service of creating a just community.
It’s not rocket science, this ancient wisdom, and it is both effective and capable of lasting over the long haul. Perhaps that is why the founding fathers of the United States chose a similar structure for balancing power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government. This balance of power has served us well for over two-hundred years. Yet it cannot run on autopilot. In ancient Israel, each of the three branches had to maintain their commitment to their independence from the other branches, to the laws of Torah, and to the people. Today, each of the three American branches must maintain their commitment to their independence from the other branches, to the Constitution (and the same rule of law for all Americans), and to the people.
We are losing our way, but we are not lost. This is the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, the month leading to our High Holy Days of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. This is the season of teshuvah, of learning from our mistakes and changing our ways. Each day of Elul we hear the shofar blast, a reminder that there is still time … and that the clock is ticking.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras