Jewish Life Torah Portion

Torah Portion – Shoftim

By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb

If we want to learn a thing or two about the ideal society, King Solomon suggests that we observe insect life.

“Lazy bones, go to the ant; Study its ways and learn. Without leaders, officers, or rulers, it lays up its stores during the summer, hathers in its food at the harvest.” (Proverbs 6:6-8)

The Midrash, in this week’s Torah portion is not only in awe of the complexity of the ants’ tasks, but is astonished at the moral lesson which we can learn from this lowly creature:

“Behold the ethical behavior of the ants as it avoids theft. Said Rabbi Simon ben Chalafta: ‘I once observed an ant who dropped a kernel of wheat, which then rolled down the ant hill. All the ants came, one by one, and sniffed it. No ant dared take it, until the one who dropped it came and took it for herself. Behold the wisdom of the ant, which is to be praised, for it did not receive instruction from any other creature, and has neither judges nor policeman” (Deuteronomy Rabba, Shoftim, 3).

King Solomon and Rabbi Simon ben Chalafta ask us to take a glimpse of what a perfect society might look like. It would be a society that had no leadership hierarchy; a society in which everyone contributed to the extent that he could; a society in which each individual respected the other. In short, it would be an efficient society and an ethical one. And it would have no leader, no need for judges, no necessity for policemen to assure that crimes were not committed.

This week’s Torah portion describes a society that is far from that ideal. It opens with the command that we “appoint magistrates and officials…who shall govern the people and do justice.” The Torah insists upon a judicial system and personnel to enforce its laws. It speaks of a judicial hierarchy with lower courts consulting higher ones. It speaks of a king. It describes a military system and outlines the roles of priests, sergeants, and generals. It describes a system of government that is comprised of several different institutions, each with its own set of responsibilities and privileges.

Is it the ideal society that is being described herein, it is a response to the tragic fact that real societies do not resemble the utopian ideal and, therefore, require judges and policemen, overseers and enforcers, kings and generals.

Taking the latter approach and understanding that the royal, military, and judicial institutions described in detail in this week’s Torah portion are necessary because mankind is not perfect, enables us to understand a puzzle which confronts readers of this week’s text.

One passage in our parsha doesn’t seem to fit. It is the subject of chapter 19, in which the children of Israel are commanded to set aside three cities to serve as sanctuaries for a person who was guilty of killing another unwittingly. How does this unintentional manslaughter, fit into the rubric of the other passages of this week’s Torah portion which deal with institutions of government?

This is a question asked by numerous commentators. An answer is offered by Rabbi Yehuda Shaviv. He suggests that the passage describing in detail how to treat an unintentional murderer illustrates the simple human lesson that accidents will happen. “It would be wonderful indeed,” writes Rabbi Shaviv, “if people would never blunder or err, and could control all of their actions rationally and with great caution. But our Torah relates to human beings in all of their frailties and faults, and gives us ways of coping and rectifying those shortcomings.”

To me, the difference between the harmonious social organization which characterizes the colony of ants versus human groups which require intricate systems of control and management is the difference between creatures guided by instinct versus humans blessed by free will. It is the very freedom that we as humans enjoy that compels us to be on guard against evil in all of its forms.

The lesson of this week’s parsha is that human beings require external controls in the form of law, systems of justice and enforcement, kings and political leaders, and even militias and generals. King Solomon’s call to us to witness the ants is really his invitation to envision an ideal society, but one which is nearly impossible to achieve given the human condition. Until that ideal is achieved, we are well advised to study all that the Torah has to say about safeguards against human faults. Shofitm recognizes the reality of crime, dishonesty, and violence. It even copes with inevitable unintentional violence.

The Torah is designed to help us deal with the realities of existence, which are typically far from ideal. Nevertheless, the Torah holds open the possibility that a utopia might one day emerge. After all, if the ants can achieve an efficient and ethical society, why can’t we?

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