Shofetim: We all have a role to play in the ongoing deliverance of Justice

In his last days, Moses is deeply concerned with the future good governance of the people.  Today’s sidra begins with his instructing the people: “shoftim v’shotrim titein lecha b’chol sh’areicha asher Adonai eloheicha notein lecha lishvatecha, v’shaftu et ha’am, mishpat tzedek”

Judges and officers you will give for yourselves in all your gates, which the Eternal your God gives you, lishvatecha (either in every town and settlement or else each tribe would have its own access to the judiciary); and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.

Justice is clearly to be for everyone, in every place, the same. The legal system must not be open to undue influence, it must strain to judge each person with “mishpat tzedek”, righteous justice, and indeed Moses goes on to require “tzedek tzekek tirdof” – that the people must actively pursue this righteous behaviour, not be passive consumers of the justice or expect someone else to make it happen.

Moses goes on to detail what will become the different strands of leadership within the Jewish world of the time – first the monarchy, then the priesthood, then the prophets.  And there is much to be said about the way power is organised in this model: there will be a monarchy only if the people want this, and the instructions about this role are curiously more about what the king could NOT have and do, rather than what the king must do for the people: So there is to be no foreign power or return to Egypt, no building up of horses or wives or personal wealth, and the  honourable positive exception is that the king must write for himself a “mishneh haTorah hazot al sefer mi’lifnei ha’cohanim ha’levi’im” And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law [Torah] in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites” and the king must read this book regularly in order not to separate himself from the people and to ensure that the king (and also the people) continue to follow the Torah of God.

There is to be the hereditary priesthood from the tribe of Levi, who will own no land but “Adonai hu nachalato” God is their inheritance and so they will eat from the offerings brought to God and they will control the ritual and the religious life of the people.  The prophets will come later, each one is to be a mouthpiece for God and will speak what God commands them, and the people are warned how to detect a true prophet from a false one.

Powerful and separate roles – that of judge, of sovereign, of priesthood, and of prophet – each holds a different power and each has a different job to do. The separation of powers is critical in the good governance of the people and has already evolved in Moses’ lifetime. But there is one role that is not spelled out yet is critical for the others to function.

The sidra begins “shoftim v’shotrim” and while it reminds us first that the shoftim, the judges will judge each person with “Mishpat tzedek – righteous Justice”, it seems to take for granted the role of the shotrim. Variously translated as “officers”, “bailiffs” these are the people who ensure that the judgments are carried out, that justice is done.

Rashi explains that the Shoftim are the judges who consider the cases and who render decisions. The Shotrim are the executive officers who translate the law into reality. In our world the Shoftim are both the legislature and the judiciary who must be independent and who must have the public good of a just society at the forefront of all they do, while the Shotrim would be the carriers out, the branch who must execute and implement, and if necessary enforce the laws decided by the shoftim.

Bring that forward into today’s world and we can understand just how critical a role the shotrim play.  There is, of course, some overlap and some dual-role activity. Our Parliamentarians are both the legislature in that they write and decide the laws, but they also have a responsibility to their constituency to ensure that justice will be pursued. Our Judges both interpret the law as it is written and create it case by case “on the ground”, and they must ensure that not just the law as it is codified shall be enacted, but that justice should be done – even if that means straining the legal language on occasion. Law as an ideal construct will of necessity not always speak to the situations of real human beings, and in such cases the shotrim must ensure that justice will be actively pursued.

Bible reminds us that for good governance there must be several different and separated roles so that power can be spread among them and not concentrated in too few hands. But this sidra is particularly interested in justice as part of that governance, and provides not only for the law-makers the shoftim, but for the justice enablers, the shotrim. Sometimes there may be a dissonance between the two, sometimes they will work well. Rashi suggests that the shotrim were there to ensure that the words of the shoftim are carried out, even going so far as to suggest chastising those who were not doing so.  But in the context of the separation of powers in this sidra, as well as the overarching theme of justice, I wonder if this can be right, whether their role is not to chastise the people but to ensure that justice matches the law.

As we sit in late preBrexit Britain, watching our legislature hide behind legal loopholes such as that the result of the advisory referendum cannot be challenged precisely because it was advisory, or that the findings of fraud and cheating are not reasons to legally annul the resultant vote;  when we see Jeremy Corbyn and the current leadership of the Labour Party tie itself into knots about the antiSemitism in the party, finding all kinds of jargon and spurious disciplinary or investigative processes to distance themselves from responsibility for their own behaviour; When we watch Boris Johnson cynically using dog whistle racism to shore up his own position in a party that is so afraid of the far right fringe that it has lost any sense of its own purpose; Then more than ever we cry out for the shotrim, the people who are not the leadership but whose purpose is to ensure that the leadership promotes justice rather than legalistic nuances.

Who are the shotrim? Well they are not defined in the text. They must clearly be people who have the ability to act as officers of governance. They must clearly be people for whom justice is the overriding value. They are, I think, people like you and me, who step up and speak up for justice.  For me the shotrim are embodied in people such as Carole Cadwalladr, who campaigns for transparency in the murky political world of Brexit, or the pro-bono lawyers who are challenging government at every turn. They are the leaders of civic society working for and demanding a safe haven for refugees, the boats of MSF literally fishing bodies out of the water of the Mediterranean.

But we don’t all have to be quite so all-consumed or so dedicated to do our bit towards being shotrim. We simply have to keep our focus on ensuring that justice is delivered equally for everyone, remind out government of this requirement, volunteer or write letters, become activists for a cause. It is our role to be human beings who care for the rights of other human beings. Put like that, it shouldn’t be too onerous a task. And it is a task we must accept for justice to thrive.




“What a rabbi said to the politicians” or “Good Governance and Community leadership: texts for reflection for the Council of the London Borough of Merton”

 I was honoured recently to be asked to open the prayers for the first meeting of Council of the London Borough of Merton. The new Mayor Krystal Miller has decided to invite members of the different faith communities to take this role in her mayoral year, and I was excited and happy to be the first to wear the new interfaith insignia for this event.

I chose not to simply say a prayer, or to invoke a divine blessing, but to offer some texts on governance and community for the councillors to reflect upon, and here they are:

“In the Mishnah, the earliest attempt to codify Jewish law, we have a tractate called Pirkei Avot, meaning something like, the “Chapters of Fundamental Principles”, which contains material dating from around 200 BCE till 200 CE and concerns itself with ethical ideology. Traditionally we study it from Pesach (commemorating the Exodus from slavery) till either Shavuot (Festival of Revelation of Torah) or until Rosh Hashanah, (The Day of Judgment and the New Year)

The book is a kind of manual of good practise in both interpersonal relationships and governance, and I would like to share some of its insights:

Based on a verse in  Jeremiah, (29v7) written in the 6th century BCE:

ז  וְדִרְשוּ אֶת־שְׁלוֹם הָעיר אֲשֶׁר הִגְלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה וְהִתְפַּלְלוּ בַֽעֲדָהּ אֶל־יְהֹוָה כִּי בִשְׁלוֹמָהּ יִֽהְיה לָכֶם שָׁלֽוֹם:

7 And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to live (be carried away captive,) and pray to the Eternal for it; for in the peace of that city shall you have peace.

The Mishnah tells us “Rabbi Chanina taught: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without fear of governmental authorities people would swallow each other alive” (Pirkei Avot 3:2).

ב רַבִּי חֲנִינָא סְגַן הַכֹּהֲנִים אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּשְׁלוֹמָהּ שֶׁל מַלְכוּת, שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא מוֹרָאָהּ, אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ חַיִּים בָּלָעוּ.

So for more than two and a half thousand years, Jews have had the tradition of praying for the welfare of the monarch and government of the countries in which they lived, well aware that without good government, anarchy and danger will prevail : “without good governmental authorities, people would swallow each other alive”

As well as the importance of good governance, these sages also knew about the importance of community: (2:5)

הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר, וְאַל תַּאֲמֵן בְּעַצְמָךְ עַד יוֹם מוֹתָךְ, וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרָךְ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ,

Hillel said, do not separate yourself  from the community, do not trust yourself until the day you die, do not judge your friend until you reach his place…

And Hillel’s contemporary Shammai taught (1:15)

טו שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע. אֱמוֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה, וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת:

“Shammai said, make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.”

Hillel also taught about the importance that each individual take responsibility for themselves, but also that we take responsibility for each other, and that this is an imperative: (1:14)

יד הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:

1:14 “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And, if I am for myself only, then what am I? And, if not now, when?”

Hillel, was active between 30 BCE and around 10 CE. His formulation of the golden rule “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary” (Shab. 31a)” is a masterful one. If we all behaved in a way we would like others to behave to us, life would be far more pleasant.

Another sage, ben Azzai formulated it slightly differently, with a reminder of the importance of each human being:

ג הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם:

4:3. “He (the son of Azzai) used to say, do not be disrespectful of any person and do not be dismissive of any thing, for there is no person who does not have their hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place.”

I would like to end this study with the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: (2:16)

טז הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

Rabbi Tarfon (70CE) taught: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (2:16).

So what do we learn from this two thousand year old collection that is helpful for us today? Well firstly that there is, as Kohelet says

 מַה־שֶּֽׁהָיָה הוּא שֶׁיִּֽהְיֶה וּמַה־שֶּׁנַּֽעֲשָׂה הוּא שֶׁיֵּֽעָשֶׂה וְאֵין כָּל־חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ:  יֵשׁ דָּבָר שֶׁיֹּאמַר רְאֵה־זֶה חָדָשׁ הוּא כְּבָר הָיָה לְעֹֽלָמִים אֲשֶׁר הָיָה מִלְּפָנֵֽנוּ:  אֵין זִכְרוֹן לָרִֽאשֹׁנִים וְגַם לָֽאַֽחֲרֹנִים שֶׁיִּֽהְיוּ לֹֽא־יִֽהְיֶה לָהֶם זִכָּרוֹן עִם שֶׁיִּֽהְיוּ לָֽאַֽחֲרֹנָֽה:

 That which has been is that which shall be, and that which has been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there a thing whereof it is said: ‘See, this is new’?–it has been already, in the ages which were before us. There is no remembrance of them of former times; neither shall there be any remembrance of them of latter times that are to come, among those that shall come after.

And secondly that for people to live well and peacefully and gain in prosperity and feel secure, they need both good governance that wields its power well, and they need good community, where people take responsibility for themselves and for each other.

This is my prayer for this Council, as it deliberates and balances different goods on behalf of the people of Merton. This council will have to make difficult decisions, to stretch its resources to the limit, to find a way to serve its different communities who will have competing needs and desires.  I pray that at all times you remember the importance of respect for all people, remembering that there is no person who does not have their hour. I pray that you never set yourselves apart from the community, that you never stop questioning yourselves, that you never feel distant from the real lived experience of your constituents. I pray that your governance brings security and settled peace to all who live in your boundaries. I hope you keep before you always the need to say little but to do much, and always to meet each other with a friendly face.

Every Saturday morning Jews pray for the welfare of the Government with the words V’chol mi she’oskin b’tzorcehy tzibbur be’emunah,  Hakadosh baruch hu yeshalem sechoram,  V’yishlach beracha v’hatzlacha bechol ma’asey y’deyhem

“All those who are occupied faithfully with the needs of the community may the Almighty pay their reward. May God send blessing prosperity and success in all the deeds of their hands. And let us say Amen”