August 2017, Parshat Shoftim

Dear Friends,

Most of us don’t like receiving a parking ticket or any fine really. I’ve never come across a person who has been happy at the sight of one of these small rectangular pieces of paper flapping on their windscreens. Rather there’s that sinking feeling and the frustration at having been foolish enough to receive the fine in the first place.

However, one has to look no further to a small town in Northern England, whose only parking inspector quit in 2014, to understand the importance of these officials. Initially the town’s residents rejoiced that they would no longer be subjected to the “grey ghosts” who cost them spare their spare cash. But soon people no longer listened to the traffic signs around the town. This resulted in days of having one’s driveway blocked, disregard for disabled parking signs and an almost impossible search for a car park around the train station in what used to be the two-minute pick-up zone. Residents reported that they were flabbergasted at how careless other drivers had become upon learning that they would not be subject to any fines, including blocking an access ramp for ambulances to the local hospital. After almost three months the townspeople were begging the council to hire a new parking officer so that a sense of normalcy, and law and order, could be returned to the town. When the first fines were reissued after the hiatus the community breathed a sigh of relief that their town would return to normal.

In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Shoftim, G-d commands the Jewish people to appoint “magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that G-d is giving you and they shall govern the people with due justice.” When examining the example above, it becomes clear that without law and order, even seemingly mundane jobs become critical in maintaining an orderly society. As part of Jewish law, even a parking inspector’s role is critical to maintaining the societal functions that G-d expects of us to ensure that people are taken care of and the sense of right and wrong is maintained through a just court system. As noted in this week’s Parsha, Jewish law takes great pains to ensure that the court systems that are set up have adequate safeguards in place to prevent bias and partial judges; as the Parsha states “justice justice you shall pursue” and “you shall not take bribes for they blind the eyes.” As part of this justice, the impartiality that a judge must apply does not extend only to dollar bribes, but also the perceptions that can sway them such as appearance and rich vs. poor and status. A society where such factors dominate how justice is meted out will fail because the principals upon which it is built upon are fundamentally flawed.

The Torah also recounts the laws surrounding the terrible fate of one who has been found slain in the open field with the identity of the slayer not being known. The elders, magistrates of the nearby towns, are commanded to go out and measure the distance from their towns and the corpse is taken to the nearest town to where it has been found. A heifer is brought from this town and they shall break the heifer’s neck, the priests shall come forward and bless G-d and the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands of the heifer whose neck was broken and shall declare: “our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done, absolve O L-rd your people Israel whom you redeemed and do not let the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” This ritual, known as the “Eglah Arufah” is certainly strange and the Rabbis classify it as a law that does not have a rational explanation.

However, the symbolism is clear. When they wash the hands of the elders, and declare that they did not shed the blood of the innocent, the Talmud declares that that the elders are not declaring their own innocence, but that they did not permit lawlessness and violence that lead to murder to flourish in their towns. The Midrash adds: “in our community, no poor person goes unaided to the point of being driven to a life of crime.”

What the rabbis were teaching us is, that while it is obviously forbidden to commit murder, it is also our responsibility to prevent murder and acts of violence from occurring in our society. We must have laws and systems in place to ensure that our society functions with courts of law and impartial justice. We are responsible for all people in our society and must make every effort to ensure that our justice system is not corrupt and that those on the fringes are cared for and included.

When we see injustice and violence we may not just wash our hands of responsibility and walk away. As a Jewish people, we have a responsibility for all our brethren to ensure that we work towards ameliorating existing attitudes in our society that lead to violence, hate and criminal attitudes that can lead to a lifestyle of hate. As the Parsha says, we have the responsibility to implement courts and systems, including parking inspectors, to ensure the safety of our people and society.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Gabi