Section One of Shoftim (7 August, 2013, Elul 1, 5773)
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D5a. Judgement and the Sanhedrin
18 You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall render just decisions for the people.
A system of responsible rulership was required.
Judges and policemen were needed.
Each tribe had to set up its own system adapted to its own needs and locally responsible.
19 You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.
It was forbidden to show favoritism, forbidden to take bribes.
Even taking money, presents, or favors, to do the right thing that one would do anyway was forbidden.
20 Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
The ability to live normally and the inheritance of the Land was contingent on maintaining a system of justice. People need to be able to trust each other and the authorities they live under.
These days people often lack faith in the police and in the court system and in local authorities.
#Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue#
In Hebrew "Tsedek tsedek tirdaf" literally "Justice, justice you shall pursue after" i.e. double justice, justice that is certain. You shall pursue vigorously complete justice in every way.
The word in Hebrew used here for justice is Tsedek. In the Aramaic Paraphrase-Translation of Onkelos this word is here translated as "Kushta" i.e. TRUTH.
Justice is the Truth and the Truth is Justice. We must recognize the truth and own up to it and pursue our course by going after (pursuing) that which is true.
A very high standard was expected of public officials and of private people in their inter-personal relationships.
21 You shall not plant any tree as a sacred pole beside the altar that you make for the LORD your God;
This commandment against idolatry follows the injunction to maintain justice and public responsibility. The Sages saw a link between the two.
Lack of Public Responsibility is similar to idolatry and could lead to it.
22 nor shall you set up a stone pillar, things that the LORD your God hates.
1 You must not sacrifice to the LORD your God an ox or a sheep that has a defect, anything seriously wrong; for that is abhorrent to the LORD your God.
There is an important principle here. It was forbidden to sacrifice a blemished animal. It is sometimes necessary NOT to do something than to do it improperly.
Idolatry was forbidden. A man or woman who committed idolatry was to be put to death.
2 If there is found among you, in one of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, and transgresses his covenant 3by going to serve other gods and worshipping them, whether the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, 4and if it is reported to you or you hear of it, and you make a thorough inquiry, and the charge is proved true that such an abhorrent thing has occurred in Israel, 5 then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman who has committed this crime and you shall stone the man or woman to death. 6 On the evidence of two or three witnesses the death sentence shall be executed; a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness. 7 The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterwards the hands of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
There follows an important commandment that encompasses justification for the Oral Tradition.
8 If a judicial decision is too difficult for you to make between one kind of bloodshed and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any such matters of dispute in your towns, then you shall immediately go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose, 9where you shall consult with the levitical priests and the judge who is in office in those days; they shall announce to you the decision in the case.
# who is in office in those days #. We have to refer to recognized authorities and experts in our own time even though we feel that those of previous generations understood the situation differently and may have given us answers more to our liking.
10 Carry out exactly the decision that they announce to you from the place that the LORD will choose, diligently observing everything they instruct you.
The Commandments must be obeyed according to how the Sages tell us to obey them.
All doubts must be referred to them. They decide. It is not logical that each and every person would decide for themselves how to obey commandments so that they were all keeping them differently. There was communal responsibility. Someone who disobeyed could be executed. Therefore there needed to be system of accepted communal agreement as to how the Law should be kept.
11 You must carry out fully the law that they interpret for you or the ruling that they announce to you; do not turn aside from the decision that they announce to you, either to the right or to the left. 12 As for anyone who presumes to disobey the priest appointed to minister there to the LORD your God, or the judge, that person shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13 All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.
At first there was Moses and the seventy elders.
After that in each generation there were the Sanhedrin of Seventy Sages and smaller courts for local cases. A body of precedents and legal apparatus for making decisions grew up. This still exists. Today it is represented by the general consensus amongst recognized Orthodox Jewish Rabbis.