Moving Society, and Ourselves, Forward
Parashat Shofetim is central to the entire Torah — “justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20). With these words, our parashah concerns itself with the appointment of magistrates and officials, the establishment of a court system free from impartiality and impropriety, the founding of cities of refuge, the delineation of laws concerning warfare, and communal responsibility in the case of an unsolved murder. Indeed, Shofetim seeks to move society forward — away from the slavery that defined Israelite existence in the land of Egypt. For with freedom comes responsibility. It is quite fitting then that our parashah coincides with Rosh Hodesh Elul — the beginning of the month of Elul which marks our personal introspection as we look toward the Yamim Noraim, the High Holidays. It is a time in which we strive to free ourselves from destructive patterns, move forward, and order our own lives.
Given this auspicious time in the Jewish calendar, the most striking law of this week’s parashah is Deuteronomy 17:14—17. There, the Torah speaks of the Israelites seeking to appoint a king. While the choosing of the Israelite monarch will be vastly different from his Canaanite counterparts, the Torah makes a categorical demand on this ruler: “he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, ‘You must not go back that way again’ ” (Deut. 17:16—17). Egypt can not be the source of power for the Israelite monarchy. Past bondage cannot be the fount of political and economic organization for the Israelites. All connections to Egypt must be severed. And more importantly, the Torah goes further requiring that the king, “have a copy of the Teaching with him… Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God” (Deut. 17:18—19). The monarch is not above the law. Not only is he part and parcel of God’s legislation, he must be a student. He must learn Torah.
With Elul approaching, this passage communicates two important messages. First, to order our own lives, we must free ourselves from Egypt, physically and spiritually. Our old selves can no longer be the source of our power. Rather, we need to engage in introspection, identify those qualities we would like to change, and work to break free of life’s inertia. As Michael Walzer writes in Exodus and Revolution, “[t]he Israelites do not go wandering in the wilderness; the Exodus is a journey forward — not only in time and space. It is a march toward a goal, a moral progression, a transformation” (12). Second, each of us must commit ourselves to learn in the coming year. Learning Torah inculcates the values that lead to the repair of this broken world. Learning helps to discipline and refine us. As Abraham Joshua Heschel points out so poetically, “What a sculptor does to a block of marble, the Bible does to our finest intuitions. It is like raising the dead to life” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, 188).
This year, may we break free of Egypt and move purposefully toward a life shaped by Torah.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.