Judging the Individual, Guiding the Community

Shofetim By :  Shuly Rubin Schwartz Chancellor and Irving Lehrman Research Professor of American Jewish History Posted On Aug 21, 2015 / 5775 | Torah Commentary

The 2016 US presidential election primary season has begun with over two dozen potential candidates competing for our support. Keeping track of their positions on the issues feels impossible, but watching them as they present themselves to the American public helps sharpen our thinking, not only about the individual candidates, but also about the leadership qualities we both esteem and eschew in our elected officials.

Parashat Shofetim reviews many different kinds of leaders—judges, officers, priests, kings, military leaders. In doing so, it offers us insights on the leadership qualities the Torah deems essential to the establishment and sustenance of a just society, qualities applicable not only to elected officials today but to anyone in a position of authority or responsibility over others. In this parashah devoted to the central theme of “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof,” [“Justice, Justice shall you pursue,”] (Deut. 16:20) the Torah teaches that the social order will thrive only when all leaders are attuned to upholding justice. A straightforward goal, but the parashah acknowledges that the reality is inevitably more complicated. Even the most inspiring leaders will struggle, and the parashah opens by exhorting leaders not to succumb to all-too-human impulses to play favorites or take bribes. (Deut. 16:19)

The parashah also teaches us that, even with well-intentioned leaders, justice may be elusive, and the strict application of rules may not always effectuate the most just solution. Amidst the review of laws of warfare, asylum cities, and unsolved murders, the parashah contains several verses that further deepen our insight into the Torah’s understanding of leadership and justice. Officials mobilizing an army are charged with sorting out which soldiers are eligible for deferment. They are encouraged to ask the troops:

Has anyone built a new house and not yet begun to live in it? …. Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it? …. Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her…. Is anyone afraid or fainthearted? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his. (Deut. 20:5-8)

The Torah doesn’t tell us whether these are examples of deferrals or a comprehensive list. Except in the case of the faint of heart, we do not learn why the deferrals are granted, and thus we look to the commentators for explanation. The traditional commentators focus on the impact that each individual soldier might have on the group. For example, Hizkuni notes that the instances concerning the establishment of a house, a livelihood and a family—represent the fundamental elements of societal formation—and therefore must be accommodated for the sake of the community ideals for which the army is fighting. Rashbam relates these three examples to the fourth, noting that each of these men feels unlucky to be drafted at this time, a sentiment that—like cowardice—would likely impede his ability to effectively discharge his duties thus endangering the lives of his comrades.

But I see something additional in this focus on the individual in a parashah devoted to the leadership required to establish and uphold communal norms: The official scans the group but is looking for the unique concerns and needs of the individuals who compose it: Who stands before me? What impact will their past, their current circumstances, or their psychological inner life have on their participation in the group?

In each case, the Torah tells us, the individual’s needs required the granting of a deferral. One can almost hear the unspoken objections of the rest of the group: “Why do they get to go home? I don’t want to die before my time either. It’s not fair!” Such protests reflect a larger human desire to be seen on one’s own terms and not only as a member of a group. The lesson for the official, then, is two-fold: first, to always be aware of the individuals in his unit both individually and as they relate to the community, and second, to recognize that following the letter of the law may not advance justice in each individual case. In other words, to effectively lead his army, the official must encourage and strengthen the group while also recognizing and acting upon the implications of the unique situation of each member in it.

Judges, army officers, and presidents, but also supervisors, rabbis, teachers, and parents face this challenge daily. We often find ourselves in the position of needing to sort out the application of principles to an individual case. Is the child, the student, the individual complainant right? Are we being unfair? How do we know when an exception is warranted—with our loved ones, students, colleagues, or the group as a whole? How can society function if we keep second-guessing the rules? How can it function if we do not?

In this section of Shofetim, the Torah teaches that despite the need for general laws and systems, societal norms should never erase the needs of each individual member. The Torah is signaling here that the best leaders will always strive to discern when to uphold laws, precepts, rules, and norms, and when to modify them in individual cases—tempering justice with mercy. And this is just the kind of leader we hope for today as we consider the potential candidates for president or search for a rabbi or CEO. We want a strong leader who has a clear sense of the overarching values that sustain the group, but who is also attuned to our individual concerns.

As we begin the new academic year, my colleagues and I at JTS are eager to cultivate intentional community filled with meaningful moments of learning, celebration, and sharing. We hope to embody JTS’s mission and inspire a new generation of students to spread Torah and its values throughout their lives. We strive to guide our students inspired by the message of Shofetim: the professor who demands a great deal from her class in order to establish a robust, vibrant learning environment but is attuned to the individuals needs of each student in it; a future rabbi developing deep knowledge of, appreciation for, and facility with the norms of Jewish law that undergird the richness of Jewish life, but who also appreciates the importance of interpreting the law for individual questioners with a keen awareness of the questioner’s concerns.

As we begin the month of Elul and turn our gaze toward the High Holidays, we hope to be the beneficiary of such nuanced attention by the ultimate leader, the Divine. We will be reminded of the importance of our place as both individuals and members of community, as we are in parashat Shofetim. We will pray collectively but also take private stock of our individual shortcomings. We will implore the Divine to hear our unique prayers, to invoke mercy at this time of justice—for the community as a whole and for each and every one of us. May we succeed in our efforts—both for our own sake and for the wellbeing of the entire community.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Parashah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).