Parshas Shoftim: Covering All the Bases


Rabbi Michael Bernstein


In order to maintain the integrity of the justice system, the Torah establishes three rules (16:19),Do not subvert justice, do not show favoritism, nor shall you accept a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and corrupts the words of the just.

There are three components to every court case¾ the relevant law, the litigants who vie for advantage before the court and the judge who applies the case. In this one verse, the Torah, in its precise style, covers all the bases by warning against willful tampering with any of the three components.

In the first case, the Torah, in order to safeguard the integrity of the law, anticipates the possibility of a judge who questions the fairness of a commandment and decides to act in what he considers a more equitable manner. For instance, he may consider it unfair for a firstborn to get a double share of inherited property, and consequently, he may divide an estate evenly among all the heirs. Against this self-righteousness, the Torah warns the judge not to “subvert justice” by following his personal inclinations. Irrespective of them, the law must stand sacrosanct.

In the second case, the Torah safeguards the equality of the litigants by proscribing favoritism in any form. If one of the litigants is a respected community activist or a well-known scholar, the judge may be inclined to treat him with the deference due to a person of stature. Conversely, if one of the litigants is an extremely needy or unfortunate person, the judge may speak to him with especial kindness and compassion. Here, the Torah warns the judge not to “show favoritism” and thereby put the other litigant at a disadvantage.

Finally, the Torah demands the complete integrity of the judge by prohibiting payment in any shape or form, even if it is given to encourage him to rule in accordance with the law, or even if he accepts gifts from both sides simultaneously. Accepting payment of any sort, the Torah declares, obfuscates the judge’s vision and corrupts his judgment.

Thus, in one concise verse, the Torah addresses and safeguards all three essential components of judicial litigation.




Stumbling on Stallions

Horses were valuable in the ancient world, and it seems that Egypt had them in great abundance. In fact, the Torah restricts Jewish kings from having too many horses, because it would lead to close contact with Egypt (17:15-16). “You shall surely appoint a king over yourselves . . . only (rak) he shall not accumulate too many horses for himself, so that he will not return the people to Egypt in order to accumulate horses, for God has said to you, ‘You shall not persist (lo tosifun) in returning on this road again.’”

The last words of the verse stand as a separate commandment directed to all Jews rather than to the king alone. “You shall not persist in returning on this road [to Egypt] again.” The Torah forbids a Jew to live in the land of Egypt. According to the Rambam, this prohibition applies at all times, regardless of any shifts in the government, culture or ethnicity of the indigenous population.

Why should living in Egypt be forbidden if any or all of these elements have changed? What would connect the new Egypt to the old?

By forever prohibiting a return to Egypt, God has established that the return to that land, and to the ancient culture of which it is an eternal reminder, is a sign of an overall national regression. The Jewish nation was born when God chose to bring us forth to freedom from the iron crucible of Egypt; our raison d’être is defined by our eternal allegiance to the will of God. No nation before Egypt had ever so denied the reality of God’s presence, nor would any nation afterward ever do so to such an extent. The prohibition against living in Egypt institutionalizes the idea that there is a place and belief to which we can “never go back again.

A question remains with regard to the placement of this universal prohibition. Why does the Torah present it within the context of the commandment forbidding a Jewish king to accumulate too many horses rather than as a separate and direct commandment to all the people?

The word only” (rak) in the phrase only [the king] shall not accumulate too many horses for himself” appears as a caveat, a warning to those people who expressed a desire to have a king, saying (17:14), I will establish over me a king like all the nations that surround me. A king represents a powerful central government, with obvious advantages for efficiency, economy and safety. But, warns the Torah, there is also danger inherent in this form of government. The king may seek to accumulate stables of steeds.

What is the significance of a superabundance of horses? What danger would they pose to the welfare of the Jewish state?

Horses in the ancient world were the ultimate weapon of war. The artillery (war chariots) and the cavalry depended on a reliable supply of powerful steeds. By warning the king not to accumulate too many horses, the Torah in effect warns him not to build an excessively large army, since doing so would draw the Jewish nation back toward Egypt and all that it represents.

The Egyptians witnessed the greatest revelation of God’s mastery of the world, and yet, they remained defiant. Living in splendid isolation with the inexhaustible supply of Nile River water, the Egyptians became intoxicated with their own self-sufficiency; they could not concede to a Higher Power. A powerful standing army could have the same effect on the Jewish nation, giving rise to the illusion that security lay within their own power. While the Jewish people are meant to make reasonable efforts to protect themselves, they must never forget that true security lies in the God’s hands. As Moses warned (8:11;17), “Beware lest you forget God your Lord . . . and you say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand has brought me this triumph.’” An overemphasis on military preparedness can lead us down this path. Thus, the Torah simultaneously enjoins the king from seeking excessive security and also prohibits all Jewish people to return to live in Egypt.

The language at the end of the verse, “You shall not persist (lo tosifun) in returning on this road again,” resonates with the language of redemption Moses used when he spoke to Pharaoh (10:29), You have spoken correctly, I shall not persist (lo tosif) to see your face again.” Thus, the language of the prohibition against living in Egypt reminds us of the Exodus and the special destiny that arose from it.