Torah portion Shoftim (Judges)

Rabbi Annette Koch‘s drash (teaching) on this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, brings ancient truths to modern conditions. Rabbi Koch is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Alameda.


When my father spoke about the horrors of being a prisoner in a Russian forced labor camp on the Finnish-Russian border during World War II, he would shake his head and say, in his lilting Yiddish accent, “You shouldn’t know the things a human being can get used to.” We human beings are an adaptable bunch. We may grumble and complain, and then we usually find a way to adjust to our environments. The isolation of Covid-19 has brought us the widespread use of conferencing software like Zoom, and we have found a way to gather with friends, with family, with community for prayer, for all sorts of things we would not ever have thought about before. But right now the pandemic seems like only the beginning. The effect of climate change has fires raging all around us. And there is the ongoing onslaught of racist murders in our midst, sometimes by the very people we have authorized to keep us safe from harm. Their job is to bring the “bad guys” to justice, while protecting the “law abiding” among us from harm. That is often the case, but we can’t ignore the patterns of injustice we see everywhere.
Torah acknowledges the importance of having magistrates, leaders, and officials in our communities. This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, Deut. 16:18-21:9, teaches us that there has to be a standard for our leaders and magistrates. Mishpat tzedek is the standard. Righteous justice. Not all justice is moral and righteous. Meting out justice is the job, but the person serving it and the process by which it is determined can be corrupt. Justice must be informed by what is moral and what is right. And judging anyone, including those who serve justice, must be done justly as well. Without righteousness there is no justice. Elul is a time for the reflection which helps us to prepare for the Yamim Nora’im – the Days of Awe. With fires consuming the land around us, and fires burning among us because there is so much injustice within our gates, perhaps we can stop to reflect about what needs to be done to help to create more mishpat tzedek, righteous justice, in our world, and how we can help to bring it about.