Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Parashat Shofetim: Be Clear!

Be Clear!
A Message for Parashat Shofetim 2016
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לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים וְלֹא תִקַּח שֹׁחַד כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.
You shall not skew judgment. You shall recognize no face and no bribe shall you take, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the innocent. (Devarim 16:19)

וְאַתָּה תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִי מִקִּרְבֶּךָ כִּי תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי ה'.
…You shall root out the innocent blood from your midst, for you shall do what is straight in God’s eyes. (Devarim 21:9)

Parashat Shofetim is bookended by the theme of “straightness.” It begins with the warnings of skewed judgment and concludes with the hope that all will “do what is straight in God’s eyes.” In the interim statements of Moshe, he warned twice not to “swerve right or left,” which effectively established “straightness” as a dominant theme of the parashah.

It is easy to describe the concept of an unbending direction in the context of actual locations or coordinates. I can demonstrate the definition by walking in a direct line from one end of the room to the other or by using a ruler to draw a line from one point to another. Defining straightness of character, however, is difficult. Although we may intuit the “straight” approach in any given situation, the Torah’s demand of a systematic implementation of “straightness” runs the risks of vagueness and ambiguity.

It is in light of this particular difficulty that we may appreciate the deliberate context of each mention of “straightness” in Parashat Shofetim.

The unswerving justice demanded of the judges at the onset of the parashah takes form through the practical injunction against accepting bribes. Moshe perhaps anticipated confusion surrounding his ambiguous demand of “you shall not skew judgment,” and immediately followed it with a clear path to implementation. 

The judges thus received practical and concrete directions for the task of “straightness.” But what about the nation? What is their practical approach to keeping straight on their march through life? “According to the teaching that they instruct you and according to the judgment that they say to you, you shall do, you shall not swerve from the word that they tell you right or left” (17:12). Describing the future court and law systems, Moshe instructed the nation to listen to the rulings of the judges. By cautioning against “swerving right or left” from their rulings, Moshe was perhaps hinting that therein lay the practical directive to “being straight.”

Advising the nation to heed the words of its judges and leaders assumes that the guidance of those individuals will represent matters that are “straight in God’s eyes.” How, though, can we rule out the possibility of corruption in the leadership? Prefacing the demand that the king not “swerve from what he is commanded right or left” (17:20), Moshe provided specific instructions: “Only let him not get himself many horses…And let him not get himself many wives, that his heart not swerve, and let him not get himself too much silver and gold…He shall write for himself a copy of this teaching in a book…And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life…” (17:16-19). Moshe thus marked the path to straight leadership with precise guidelines and instructions.

Moshe did not just demand “straightness.” He purposefully and consistently gave clear and concrete instructions for its implementation.

We spend the months and days surrounding the Yamim Noraim in intense self-introspection. The unfortunate tendency of many during this period, however, is to commit to vague acceptances of “changing their ways” or “doing what is right.” Repentance that is pronounced by undefined terms such as these runs the acute risk of losing a well-intentioned change to confusion and misunderstanding.

Ha-Rambam therefore mandated that one clearly articulate and utter his every particular wrongdoing through verbal confession (Hil. Teshuvah 1:1). He further avoided the prescription of mere “thoughts of repentance” during the days interlaying Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and instead described the customary acts “to give profusely to charity, perform many good deeds, and be occupied with missvot…to a greater extent than during the remainder of the year” (Hil. Teshuvah 3:4). Concrete perceptions and deeds are necessary for an enduring repentance.

Moshe’s message in Parashat Shofetim must guide us on our path to repentance. It must caution us from the generalities, vagueness and ambiguities associated with character refinement and lead us instead toward real and specific thoughts and actions.