This week’s parsha is called Shoftim, a Hebrew word meaning “judges.” It might more contemporaneously be called “Law & Order: Sinai,” as in this parsha Moses instructs the people to appoint judges who will administer justice without corruption or favoritism, and law enforcement officers who must meticulously investigate crimes, find credible witnesses, and thoroughly examine evidence.
The parsha enumerates a variety of situations and how the legal system should deal with each of them, from murder to idolatry to the conduct of war and the requirement to try make peace beforehand. Tacked on to the commentary on war and peace is a prohibition against destroying anything of value for no reason, embodied in the law that forbids a siege army from cutting down fruit trees. It is in this context we see the statement, “for man is a tree of the field.”
I particularly like this analogy of man as a tree — we imagine ourselves separate and separated, each doing our own thing, going about our busy lives and only crossing paths coincidentally. But like leaves connected to twigs, twigs to branches, and branches to the trunk, we are not alone; we carry the experiences of our ancestors and contemporaries wherever we go, along with their troubles and victories, their hopes and aspirations. Our thoughts are shaped by their conduct, our destiny by their goals. Wherever we go, there they are, providing the shoulders on which we stand. Our roots are deep, our trunk is broad. We belong.
Membership has its rewards, but it also its obligations. The parsha ends with the case of a murder victim found in a field and no suspects can be found. The nearest community must atone for the crime, not for what they did, but for what they failed to prevent: Because something happens “out there” does not leave us unaffected; we are not free to ignore it, nor are we allowed to pretend we didn’t see it coming. The parsha demands of us as individuals to just take refuge and comfort being part of a community built on justice, and ensure that the whole acts correctly, not turning inward and away from the world. It’s about responsibility, jointly and individually, and acting fairly.
It’s easy to focus inward and see our virtues and the faults of others, and praise and reprimand accordingly, but how often do we look outside of ourselves and of our community, to the actions of our brothers and sisters, to people we are not so comfortable being around, other communities and groups that we are not part of? How exemplary are our own actions?
My kavanah for this week is to focus on self, both smaller and larger. Do I take comfort in belonging, but disavow accountability for being part of the group? Do I judge others without favoritism, and examine facts meticulously? Do I look to make peace, before I make war? And finally, for what am I, and are we as a group, responsible?