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Parashat Shoftim

Parashat Shoftim is the forty-eighth weekly portion in the Torah and the fifth one in the Book of Deuteronomy (16:18-21:9). While the previous portion deals with the laws which form the socioeconomic basis of a Godly society, this portion discusses institutions of the state.

The first element is the justice system: “Appoint judges and officers in all of your gates” (16:18-17:13). Every town needs courts and law enforcement, and when a case challenges them, they appeal to the high court sitting in “the place the Lord will choose.” This is reminiscent of the system Moses established at Sinai.

Next is the monarchy (17:14-20). The people must select a king “whom the Lord your God will choose.” It is notable that the Torah discusses the limitations on a king’s power and speaks of his appointment as a conditional mitzva.

The third institution is the Levitical priesthood (18:1-8), encompassing both the kohanim, the descendants of Aaron, and the rest of the Tribe of Levi. They do not receive a portion in the land like the other tribes, but instead receive gifts as payment for their public service. Finally, Moses defines the role of the prophet (18:9-22).

This structure is striking: on the one hand, there is a clear demarcation between political (judges, officers, kings) and religious (priests, Levites, prophets) power; on the other hand, God’s presence is felt even in the “secular” institutions of the state. There is also a parallel between the ideal and the real: every society must have judges and officers, but the monarchy is established only when the people request it; similarly, priests and Levites are a permanent feature of Israelite society, but prophets are chosen by God as the need arises to guide the people — as the nation requested at Sinai.

The rest of the portion shows how these institutions work when the taking of human life and liberty is at issue: Chapter 19 deals with the laws of manslaughter, murder and perjury, while Chapter 20 deals with the laws of war. Finally, 21:1-9 deals with an unsolved killing. Even when the assailant is unknown, a just society must acknowledge the victim.


The portion from the Prophets is the fourth entry in the Seven of Consolation, Isaiah 51:12-52:12. Its opening and closing verses read: “I, even I, am He Who comforts you. Who are you that you fear mere mortals, human beings who are but grass… But you will not leave in panic or go in flight; for the Lord will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard.” This is very reminiscent of the priest’s speech before battle, as recounted in the Torah portion: “Hear, Israel: Today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them.  For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.”

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