Reflections – Shofetim
If you want to inherit the land, God says, then you'll have to pursue justice.
By Shaiya Rothberg PhD
In this week’s parasha, the People of Israel are standing in the desert outside the Land of Israel. Moses instructs them about the Israelite State that they will establish when they cross the river. For decades they have been nomads in a vast wilderness, in a semi-magical state of being fed, clothed and watered directly by God. Now they will become a nation in the land, governing and protecting themselves, and need to understand what kind of ‘Jewish State’ God wants from them.
God lays out some basic principles through his prophet Moses (Deut. 16:18-20): “You shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes … and they shall govern the people with due justice … Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and inherit the land… .” These words make a clear connection between inheriting the land and doing justice. If you want to inherit the land, God says, then you’ll have to pursue justice.
As the holy story unfolds, we learn from the subsequent books of the Bible that the challenges of living as an independent state in the land were immense. We warred with dangerous local competitors and tried to survive great empires who could crush a small state like ours under one foot and not even be sure what they stepped on. In these conditions, getting government right was difficult. Things got so bad that God said to the prophet Isaiah that the conditions for life in the land had been violated and so the Jewish state would be destroyed and the people exiled. But God also promised that we would return to the land. The key to our return was doing justice (Isaiah 1:24-27): “Therefore said the LORD, the LORD of hosts, the mighty One of Israel…I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counsellors as at the beginning: afterward you shall be called, The City of Righteousness, the Faithful City. Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and those that return to her with righteousness.”
The Rabbis, through their art of midrash, weave together the beginning and the end: Our parasha states “You shall appoint judges…that you may live and inherit the land…” and the sages comment: “this teaches us that appointing judges is able to resurrect the People Israel, establish them in the land and protect them from the sword.” (Sifri, 144). In their simple meaning, the words from our parasha speak only of our first entrance into the land. But in the ears of the sages, they ring with the promise of redemption even after exile.
Israel is again a small independent state facing immense challenges. It is at war with the locals and dodging the feet of superpowers just like it was long ago. And in these harsh and confusing circumstances, it is difficult to get government right. But it should comfort us that at least God’s instruction is clear: life in the land is predicated on justice. The only alternative that God offers to just government is exile and destruction. However, if we do seek justice, promises the One who spoke and the world came to be, we will not only survive in the promised land, we will flourish in it.
Shaiya Rothberg, PhD, lives in Jerusalem and teaches at the Conservative (Masorti) Yeshiva. He also runs the yeshiva’s Human Rights Track. Feel free to write him with comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org