Jews are expected to observe 613 mitzvot. But what laws, according to the rabbis, are secular societies supposed to uphold? When this question was asked, the sages came up with an answer: the Noahide laws. These were the laws that God instructed Noah observe; afterall, they are a set of laws, a standard, that all of humanity is held to- and there are only 7 of them. And, what is one of the most important of those seven Noahide laws? According to the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a, establishing a fair legal system. It is essential for every community to establish systems of justice. Working systems of justice. Fair and equitable systems of justice. That makes the activity noted in this week’s Torah portion, Shofetim, which translates to “Judges,” all the more important. It reinforces the idea that it is crucial to appoint judges. It begins: “You shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that Adonai your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality, you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” Why is the idea of setting up courts and judges and systems of justice so important? What was the point that the US Constitution, the rabbinic Noahide laws and the Torah itself trying to make? That communities are only as good as their systems of justice. If a community is set up where bribes can be taken and people are not judged honestly and fairly, why be good? Honestly? Why be good? Those who can get away with stealing can, and those who can’t, well they would be accused of it anyway, right? Systems of justice are the bedrock of communities; they ensure peace through justice. That’s why within this Torah portion is also the famous verse, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Why does it implore us to pursue justice? Well that’s because justice is often elusive. But, nevertheless, we should strive towards fairness, equality, and righteousness. At this time of year, when we are judging ourselves and our actions toward one another and towards the planet, we must also do so with fair weights and measures. We must do so not by judging the best of ourselves against the worst we see in others, nor the worst we see in ourselves verses the best in others- you know like we do when we read others’ curated senses of themselves on Facebook? During this season, we must begin to act as shofetim, judges, to review whether we are in alignment with our own deeply held values, and begin to consider how we right some of the wrongs we committed this past year in our relationships, and also applaud ourselves for the good that we have done. As we come to this season of judgement, leading up to the day of judgement and the day of atonement where we consider our impact on the world, let us work to ensure equitable systems of justice in our secular world, and judge ourselves fairly personally, too-- ultimately, may we shape a future with the hope and promise of justice and righteousness in the new year! Amen!
The above is a reflection by Rabbi Heather Miller on this week's Torah portion, Parashat Shofetim, Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9. Please visit rabbiheathermiller.com to subscribe and follow on social media.