Shabbat Shoftim: Justice One Step at a Time

Everything we see, whether good or bad, is really a reflection of ourselves. If it was not, we’d simply not see it. – Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism 

This Shabbat is called Shoftim, after the first part of the parashah, which deals with the need for a way to compel cooperation with social mores. Without the ability to compel, justice will not prevail over evil, and so Moshe is told to instruct the Israelites:

שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכׇל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.

What was true then is still true now; justice is not possible without a mechanism for providing that a just judgement is carried out. In a perfect world, all judgments would be just, and those who enforce them would do so faithfully. 

The society we live in is not so fortunate – perhaps no human society has ever been. But for Jews, who respond to ethical wreckage with renewed determination to lift up the human condition, despair is forbidden. Instead we focus:

Once upon a time a well-meaning human decided to change the world.

Setting out on that errand, 

they quickly saw that the task was huge.

They decided to settle for changing their nation, 

but realized again that the goal was too lofty.

Perhaps the state? They wondered, but again felt overwhelmed.

Maybe the city? Hmmm.

Okay, I’ll start with my neighbors….

Finally, the realization hit:

The place to start is with oneself.

“To start with oneself,” the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote, “but not to end with oneself.” Buber was highly influenced by Hasidic teachings which encourage us to look inward to find the echo of what upsets us when we look outward. As the Baal Shem Tov taught, it’s the way of the Universe to bring us the lessons we each need to learn. 

Justice is not a monolithic vista, but an exercise in personal need and proclivity. If you find yourself confronting something that makes you say “how awful,” this is a sign that you are detecting the path to justice that is yours to tread. Some of us become cynical because we cannot see the holiness in those around us, yet it is there. Look for the goodness, even in all the injustice. You will find it, and it will give you strength to continue to work for justice in the way that is your path.

In Elul, the month of preparing to look at ourselves honestly in the mirror on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are offered many opportunities to consider our path. Here are a few for you to choose from: what compels your sense of justice? Do it.

Shabbat Shalom

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