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Shoftim 5782: Law & Order

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! In last week’s column I kind of sideswiped a rather large issue and because it is also relevant to this week’s Torah reading, I felt that perhaps we should explore this topic a little further. Last week I expressed how surprising it was that Charles Darwin abandoned his life-long belief in a “beneficent God” because, in his mind, the observable nature of some of God’s creations do not behave in a manner that Darwin could reconcile as being “good.” One of his “proofs” was the fact that cats play with mice.

Obviously, this argument presumes that God (and all of creation) must fit into a human definition of what is the nature of “good.” This line of thinking clearly has many flaws, the most glaring one being that a finite being cannot begin to fathom the true nature of an infinite God. Limiting God by making Him fit into your human value system represents a profound misunderstanding of the nature of God.

The easiest way for me to explain this dichotomy is by using the following illustration. At some point, every small child can come to the conclusion that their parents must hate them. After all, their parents refuse to give them as much candy as they want, they “force” them to bathe and go to sleep, and then “torture” them by taking them to doctors to get probed and endure painful shots.

All three of those events can easily happen in any 24-hour period and a child, with an extremely short perspective (and memory) can conclude that their parents are their greatest enemy. In fact, if you haven’t heard your child yell “I hate you!” you’re probably doing something wrong. If a child cannot properly discern the true intent of his parents (who only have a slightly larger perspective), then how can we possibly divine the true intention of a being that has an infinitely greater perspective?

The only understanding of what is good and moral is in God’s Torah – an “owner’s manual” gifted to mankind that defines what is good and how we ought to live in order to have the most meaningful and fulfilling lives. Of course, atheists have a problem with the very essence of that statement. They basically define morality and good as being whatever humanity can all agree upon as being right and good. In support of this view Atheists just love to raise what is known as the “Euthyphro dilemma.”

Essentially, the “Euthyphro dilemma” asks how does God know what is moral. Plato wrote a dialogue in which Socrates essentially asks Euthyphro, “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”

The very foundation of this argument – that good can possibly exist outside the essence of God and that perhaps God tried to match up His commandments with what is objectively good – once again betrays a profound misunderstanding of the essence of God. As Maimonides points out in the first principle of his Thirteen Principles of Faith: God is the primary cause of all that exists. It is also touched upon in the second principle: God has an absolute and unparalleled unity. In other words, there is nothing outside of the essence of God

Certainly, this would have been very hard for Plato to intuit seeing as the Greeks had a very different understanding of what is a god. Essentially, they believed that gods are just beings that are more powerful than humans. These beings also fight with each other, engage in very strange and questionable behavior, and are basically susceptible to all of mankind’s moral failings.

Of course, this reminds me of a joke. A kindergarten teacher was walking around her classroom admiring the concentration that her young students were applying to their artwork. She then came across a six-year-old girl drawing a picture of a man inside a whale. “That’s pretty interesting, what are you drawing?”

“It’s Jonah from the Bible, inside the belly of the whale.” The girl replied.

The teacher, an avowed atheist, told her, “You know that didn’t really happen, right?”

The young girl kept drawing while considering her teacher’s words. Finally, she responded, “I guess when I get to heaven I’ll just ask Jonah.”

“What if he’s not in heaven?” The teacher chided.

The girl, still drawing, paused for a moment and looked at her teacher, “Then you’ll ask him.”

In this week’s Torah reading we find a very interesting aspect of Jewish law and its enforcement.

You shall appoint judges and policemen in all your gates that Hashem your Lord has given you, and they will judge the nation justly (Deuteronomy 16:18).

The sages seem to be bothered by a glaring omission in the verse: The verse starts out saying that we must appoint judges and police officers, yet only seems to describe the job of the judges, saying “and they will judge the nation justly.” There is no independent mention of the role of the policemen.

The great Biblical commentator known as Rashi explains this by quoting the Midrash that defines the role of the police officers: “They are the ones that enforce the law on the people, and impose the verdict of the judge.” We see from here that the role of the police force was to support the judges; in other words, they are part of the system of courts.

This is a fascinating departure from the American system of jurisprudence. In American law, the judges are in the judicial branch of government, but all the enforcement of the law falls under the executive branch. That means that policemen, sheriffs, and other law enforcement personnel work for the local, state, or national municipality; whether it is the mayor, governor, or president. This is because under the American system the judges bear no responsibility for the practical application of law, just the determination of it.

However, under the Torah system of law, the judges are required to not only adjudicate issues that come before them, but to also oversee the application and enforcement of the laws. Thus, the police force is the enforcement arm of the judicial system. To be clear, the American system of jurisprudence simply charges the judges with determining the law while our system makes them fully responsible for the law; charging them with the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of the law as well.

Maimonides (Yad Sanhedrin 1:1) takes this one step further and explains that the officers not only enforced the laws and administered the punishments for those who violated the laws, but they were also responsible for maintaining a moral and honest society. The police were responsible for monitoring the markets to make sure there was no price collusion or gouging and that all the weights and measures used in the marketplace were accurate and honest.

In the American system, one which places a high priority on a “separation between church and state,” the law of the land isn’t really driven by morality – rather it is based on the values of social justice and keeping the peace. There is a basic understanding that you can do what you want as long as you aren’t hurting anyone.

However, the Torah system of law prioritizes the betterment and growth of the individual; to make sure that people live rich and rewarding lives. The Torah laws are not chiefly driven by the purpose of maintaining law and order just to make sure society doesn’t devolve into anarchy; our primary concern is promoting a moral society that reflects the values that God has ordained for this world.

Though the minutiae of God’s reasoning and morality are beyond us finite humans, like small children we must trust in the ultimate good of His intentions for us. Only in this way can we reach our individual potential and contribute to building a society for the betterment of the world and fulfill God’s purpose for the world.

Torah Portion of the Week

Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9

Topics in this week’s portion include: Judges and Justice, “Sacred Trees and Pillars,” Blemished Sacrifice, Penalties for Idolatry, The Supreme Court, The King, Levitical Priests, Priestly Portions, Special Service, Divination and Prophecy, Cities of Refuge, Murder, Preserving Boundaries, Conspiring Witnesses, Preparing for War, Taking Captives, Conducting a Siege, and the Case of the Unsolved Murder.

Candle Lighting Times

I want my kids to have everything I could never afford. Then I want to move in with them.
— Phyllis Diller

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Mark & Karen Scherer




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