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Parasha Shoftim (Judges): Exercising Judgment and the Knowledge of Good and Evil

Shoftim (Judges)
Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9; Isaiah 51:12–52:12; Matthew 26:47–27:10

“Appoint judges [shoftim] and officials [shotrim] for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge [shafat] the people fairly [tzedek mishpat / righteous judgment].”  (Deuteronomy 16:18) 

Bar Mitzvah Torah Scroll reading

A young man reads publicly from the Torah scroll for the first time with elders at his side.

Last week, in Parasha Re’eh, God set a blessing and a curse before the Israelites.  The blessing would come when they obeyed God’s commandments and the curse if they forsook them.

This week’s Torah reading, called Judges (Shoftim in Hebrew), discusses the issue of justice according to a Biblical perspective.

God commanded Moses to instruct the people of Israel to appoint shoftim (judges), a word derived from the verb shafat, meaning to judge or to govern, and shotrim (officials or official books, and in modern Hebrew, police officers) to rule at the gates of the cities so that justice would prevail.

These appointed leaders were expected to judge the people with fairness, equality and wisdom.  They were forbidden from perverting justice in any way, such as showing favoritism or taking bribes.

“You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.”  (Deuteronomy 16:19) 

Scales of justice gavel Israel flag

Scales of justice and gavel

So crucial is the concept of justice to the nation of Israel that the Torah actually repeats this word twice for emphasis, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.”  (Deuteronomy 16:20)

All crimes were to be investigated thoroughly and the death penalty could only be executed upon the testimony of two or three witnesses:

“On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.”  (Deuteronomy 17:6)

In fact, it was to be the hands of the witnesses that would throw the first stones at the one accused of the crime and then the rest of the people of Israel would stone the criminal to death.  Why such harsh judgments?  To purge the evil from among the community:

“You must purge the evil from among you…. You must purge the evil from Israel.”  (Deuteronomy 17:7, 12)

Even the showing of contempt toward a judge or law enforcement officer constituted a crime that carried the death penalty. 

The Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem

The Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem

This week’s portion of Scripture also contains a vital word for the nation of Israel today, as they engage in a battle against the violence and murderous intentions of Gaza’s Hamas terrorists:

“When you are about to go into battle, the priest [kohen] shall come forward and address the army.  He shall say: ‘Hear, Israel: Today you are going into battle against your enemies.  Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them.  For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.’”  (Deuteronomy 20:2–4)

God wants justice and peace to prevail in Israel.

May the God of Israel give Israeli leaders wisdom to appropriately end the reign of Hamas terror, and be with our young men and women of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces), supernaturally protecting and giving them victory against all terrorist forces that seek to destroy Jewish men, women, and children in the Holy Land.

“Through our God we shall do valiantly; for it is He who shall tread down our enemies.”  (Psalm 60:12)

IDF Soldier prayer Israel Defence Force

An Israeli soldier prays toward Jerusalem as he recites morning prayer.  (see 1 Kings 8:28–30, 42–44; Psalm 5:7; Daniel 6:10; and Jonah 2:4, 7)

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

The entire theme of this Parasha is that of judgment.

The question many of us ask ourselves is, “What about the gray areas?  How do we judge rightly especially in situations that are not specifically addressed in God’s Word?”

In the beginning, in the perfect Garden of Eden, humankind was never designed to carry the burden of judgment.  God was the only judge.

Adam and Eve (Chava) did not look down at themselves and say, “Oh dear, we are naked; that is terrible! Shameful!”  Not until they disobeyed God and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil did they receive this burden.

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”  (Genesis 3:6–7)

Eve wanted to have supernatural wisdom like God; therefore, she ate from the tree that gave her knowledge of good and evil, which was meant to be restricted to God’s domain.  Now we continue to bear the burden of Adam and Eve’s choice.

Most often, we don’t judge with supernatural wisdom.  We look in the mirror and judge ourselves as ugly, imperfect, or shameful—usually reflecting back at ourselves the judgments of others or the measurement we are using to judge others.  We look at the actions of others and judge them as wrong, bad, or evil.

Selichot prayer forgiveness western wailing wall jerusalem

An Orthodox Jewish man recites Selichot (special prayers for forgiveness) at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem.

Exercising Godly Judgment and Mercy

Being judgmental and critical of ourselves and others was never in God’s perfect plan for us.

Yeshua (Jesus) said, “Do not Judge, or you too will be judged.”  (Matthew 7:1)

But does this mean that we are never to make any kind of judgment about anything or anyone?  Of course, this would not only be impossible, but foolish.

Yeshua was merely warning us that instead of casting judgment on all those around us, we should first examine ourselves.  His very next words are:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”   (Matthew 7:2–5)

Yeshiva Students Israel study

Yeshiva (Jewish Orthodox seminary) students discuss the written and oral law as they study together.

Yeshua was not telling us to never make any kind of judgment; He only warned us against the hypocritical self-righteous judging of others.  So often, we judge others for the very same thing we ourselves are doing.

We tell our children to obey us as their parents, but then they see us not obeying the authority over us.

Or we tell them to have a good attitude and then they hear us complaining.

There is a righteous kind of judgment that we are expected to exercise carefully.

“Do not judge according to appearance but judge with righteous judgment.”  (John 7:24)

We need to make wise and discerning “righteous judgments.”  If we are considering someone becoming our marriage partner, for instance, we cannot say, “I’m just not going to judge this person.”  This would be ridiculous; we are expected to use common sense and judge a person’s actions according to Biblical standards.

The Bible says, “You shall know them by their fruits.”  (Matthew 7:16)

kotel scroll torah western wall wailing Old City Jerusalem

A Jewish man pays respect to the Torah during morning prayer at the Western (Wailing) Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, Yeshua warned us that just as we give out judgment toward others, so will we be judged ourselves.  If we judge others harshly, expecting absolute perfection, being impossible to please, this will return back on our own heads; however, if are judgments are righteous and balanced with mercy, then we will also receive mercy and grace in our time of need.

So often we seem to want mercy (or a little special consideration because of our circumstances) when we are at fault or mess up, but call forth God’s wrath and judgment against those who have wronged us.

Yeshua taught us to be merciful:  “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”  (Matthew 5:7)

When confronted with the woman caught in the act of adultery, Yeshua showed her mercy.  He did not condemn her, but warned her not to continue in her sin.

Like Yeshua, we need to model a balance between justice and mercy.  Some of us may be too hard-line, too judgmental, too demanding of others that they live up to some kind of over-idealized standard that even we can’t meet.

Or we may lean towards being such a “greasy gracie” that we let anyone walk all over us, and we tend to get into all kinds of foolish situations because of our failure to exercise right judgment.

In the end, God is the only perfectly righteous and just Judge over all the earth.  Only He can achieve that perfect balance between justice and mercy, but through prayer and holiness, we can move toward His righteousness as we judge ourselves and others. 

The Adulterous Woman–Messiah Writing Upon the Ground, by James Tissot

The Adulterous Woman–Messiah Writing Upon the Ground, by James Tissot

The Fruit of Our Lips: Placing Shoftim and Shotrim at Our Mouths

According to Rabbinic Jewish thought, the human body is likened to a city with seven gates—our two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and one mouth—that open to the outer world and can be closed off as well.

Each of these seven portals is to have an internal “judge,” which discerns what is permissible to allow inside and what to keep out.

Through the wisdom of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit), whose judgment is right, just and true, we may exercise discernment between good and evil—knowing when to be open to outside influences and when to be closed, in order that we may be holy vessels for Adonai.

May we place shoftim (judges) and shotrim (officials) at our mouths to guard them from speaking falsely.

But more than just preventing words that hurt others from escaping our lips, may the words from our mouth be a well of life to those around us (Proverbs 10:11).

And may the fruit of our lips feed many, nourishing and refreshing others (Proverbs 10:21).

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