“Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all of your gates that Hashem your G-d has given to you; according to your Tribes, and they shall judge the nation righteously.” Devarim 16:18
The Rabbeinu Bechayei sheds light on the connection between the end of last week’s Parsha and the beginning of this week’s Sedrah. We left off talking about the thrice-yearly mitzvah for the Jewish nation to make a pilgrimage to Yerushalayim on the holidays of Pesach, Shavuous and Sukkos. This weeks Parsha begins with the mitzvah to appoint judges and enforcement officers to stabilize the nation’s judiciary system. The Rabbeinu Bechayei explains the juxtaposition of these two mitzvos. Even though the Bnei Yisrael will travel to Yerushalayim three times a year, and there they will find the Kohanim, Leviim and great Torah Sages to whom they may ask all of their questions regarding how to properly fulfill the Torah and Mitzvos, and they will clarify all of their uncertainties, still, we are commanded to appoint judges and enforcers in all of our outlying cities, in order to maintain the integrity of the law throughout the rest of the year. The Shoftim are the Sages who know the ins and outs of the law and who ultimately pass the verdict. The Shotrim are the law-enforcement officers whose job is to see to it that the words of the judges are carried out in full. (Yes, they may use such aids as batons and whips to assist them in their task. See Rambam in the first halacha in hilchos Sanhedrin.)
The Rabbeinu Bechayei continues with two more interesting points about the significance of an upstanding judicial system. He brings the Medrash Tanchuma, which highlights the crucial interplay between the Shoftim and the Shotrim. The Medrash blatantly states there cannot be one without the other. For without proper enforcement the law will never be upheld and without true judgment the proper verdict will remain unknown. Finally, the Rabeinu Bechayei emphasizes just how important the power of justice is. When there is justice down on earth, Hashem does not sit in judgment on the world, rather He judges us with mercy. But if there is no justice here on Earth, Hashem will judge us with the trait of Divine Justice. The Medrash Tehillim states: “If justice is not found on earth, then justice is in the Heavens, and Hashem sits in judgment and repays accordingly. But, if there is justice on the earth Hashem does not have to sit in judgment – for exacting justice is the work of Hashem. If we do His work down here, Hashem is free to judge us mercifully from the Heavens.
As we merge into the month of Elul with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on the rise, Parshas Shoftim comes to teach us that if we live justly all year round, not only on the holidays or when we are under scrutiny, then Hashem will be left free to grant us our prayers and allow us a merciful judgment for the coming year. (By the way, a little Teshuva and Repentance won’t hurt either.)