This week’s parasha is named Shoftim (Judges) because it begins with God’s instructions for the Children of Israel to appoint judges and officers over the people when they settle in the Land of Israel. The parasha outlines details for various kinds of court procedures, including how many witnesses are needed in serious cases, the fact that the court officers must not just believe whomever makes an accusation but are obligated to investigate, and what to do when the people are not sure what the law is.
A very interesting thing about these procedures is that when the law was not clear, the dispute would be brought to an assembly of “the Kohanim, the Levites, and to the judge.” (Deuteronomy 17:9) This group would become the Great Sanhedrin of Temple times. The reference to the Levites does not mean any Levites, but identifies the Kohens as members of the Tribe of Levi, which was well known for its loyalty to God in Egypt and the Wilderness (recall that they did not participate in the sin of the Cheit Ha’Egel, the worship the Golden Calf). (Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch) Because of their loyalty to God and the Torah, they could be trusted to be honest and impartial. Their good character made them leaders in both ritual – the relationship between God and man – and civil society – the relationship between man and man.
When these judges had made their decision and taught it to the people who had asked the legal question, the people were obligated to follow it loyally: “You shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left.” (Deuteronomy 17:11) Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky asked an interesting question: How do we know we are looking at the correct “right” and “left”? “It may very well be that our right is the Torah’s left, and the same is true of the reverse.”
When you are hiking out in the field, directions of “right” and “left” are not very helpful. You need a point of reference, like “right of the mountain” or “left of the waterfall”. Of course, when we use map and compass, we can be much more exact, because every possible direction has an exact description by degrees, minutes and seconds.
In life we have a similar compass – the Torah, as interpreted through the ages by our sages and taught to us by our parents, rabbis and teachers. Keep it handy to keep from losing your way!
Thanks to Rabbi Debbie Israel of Cong. Emet, Morgan Hill, CA, for ideas for this week’s d’var Torah.