A ‘Bissel’ of Torah: SHOFTIM (DEUTERONOMY 16:18-21:9)

By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant


In previous parshiot we learned how God began preparing for the establishment of a new nation in the ‘Promised Land.’ Equal portions of the land were allotted, according to the population of each of the tribes. Last week’s Torah parsha, Re’eh, emphasized the importance of ‘tzedakah’ (charity), whereby the Children of Israel were required to provide a poor individual with whatever would be substantial for their needs. Furthermore, any outstanding liens or loans were to be forgiven at the end of seven years. In effect, with these commandments, God was minimizing the extent of ‘income inequality’; simultaneously maintaining each person’s sense of self-esteem.

In this week’s parsha, Shoftim, the time for Moses’ demise is becoming imminent. In the absence of Moses, their leader, the Children of Israel will soon be crossing through hostile nations, as they journey to their destination. Some men over the age of twenty will be exempted from battle, including one who has just built a home for his family, an individual who has recently married, or one who is ‘afraid’ and ‘soft-hearted’.

The parsha begins with Moses’ speaking: “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials in each of your cities; you shall not pervert justice, show favoritism nor take a bribe”(1). Later in the parsha, Moses tells the Children of Israel: “One witness shall not rise up against any person for any iniquity or sin; only by the mouth of two or three witnesses will the judge make a ruling”(2). Further, if there is any controversy over the judgment, the alleged perpetrator will appear before the kohanim who will consider both the ‘spirit’ and the ‘letter’ of the law.

A somewhat aberrant theme emerges when Moses tells the Israelites: “You shall set a king over you, one whom the Lord, your God, chooses from among your brothers”(3). This ‘king’ will be unlike any other monarch in the neighboring nations. He may not be allowed to own any horses, take more than one wife, nor acquire any silver or gold for himself. He will be commanded to be humble and to read the Torah, to revere the Lord, his God.

In the parsha this newly created position is assigned no specific roles or duties. In the absence of any particulars, extreme variations of interpretations emerged, at different time periods and in different parts of the world. Maimonides believed that the appointment of a king was an ‘obligation’ to protect the Israelites, with a resemblance of structure similar to other nations(4). Ibn Ezra considered the concept of creating the position of king as ‘irrelevant’(5). Rabbi Isaac Abrevanel perceived this new function as merely a ‘concession’ to the enemies of the Israelites(6); and Rabbi Bachya described it as some form of ‘compensation’ for the loss of Moses(7). An ‘anti-monarchical’ political coalition (including John Milton) utilized these comments as a rationale to overthrow all monarchies existing in Western Europe(8).

The clue to the actual role of the king is that the Hebrew word associated with ‘king’ is ‘chokmah,’ which translates into English as ‘wisdom.’ The focus of ‘chokmah’ is worldly wisdom, which is universally human, rather than a special heritage of Judaism, as is the Torah.

The king described in this week’s parsha was expected not only to learn Torah, but also to be cognizant of changes in culture, society, economy, allies, and foes. 



(1) DEUTERONOMY (16:18-19)

(2) DEUTERONOMY (19:15)

(3) DEUTERONOMY (17:15)

(4) Maimonides (1135-1204), Spain

(5) Ibn Ezra (1088-1167), France

(6) Rabbi Abravenel (1437-1508), Portugal

(7) Rabbi Bachya (1255-1340), Spain

(8) “The Hebrew Republic,” Eric Nelson (Harvard University Press)