This week’s Parsha has an interesting emphasis on the concept of Tzedek - Justice. We need to understand the deeper meaning of what Tzedek is in context of the content of the Parsha and see how it is deeply connected to Chodesh Elul as we prepare for Rosh HaShana. Hopefully through a deeper understanding of these concepts we will be able to walk away a new perspective on how to get the most out of these times of Teshuva, of returning to Hashem.
The following is an adaptation of ideas I heard from Rav Sitorsky.
The Parsha opens up with Hashem commanding the Jewish people to appoint judges and officers to ensure order and justice. “Shoftim V’Shotrim Titen Lecha B’Chol Shearecha…V’Shaftu Es Ha’Am Mishpat Tzedek.” - ‘Judges and officers shall you give to yourself in all your gates…and you shall judge the nation in a Judgment of righteousness.’
Let’s point out a few interesting anomalies in the Passuk: For starters, the audience to which the Passuk is speaking to seems to switch half-way. The Passuk begins, Shoftim V’Shotrim Titen Lecha, Judges and officers shall YOU - in the singular – give to yourself. But the Passuk ends V’Shaftu Es Ha’Am Mishpat Tzedek - the whole nation needs to get judged appropriately! If the Passuk stuck to the singular we wouldn’t have the same problem, for if it did we could simply say that the overall singular reference is going on the Jewish people as a whole, but the fact that the Passuk switches in the middle to speak about the masses means that the singular individual spoken about in the beginning of the Passuk is in fact really one guy!
Two Psukim later the term Tzedek arises again. “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof” – ‘Justice! Justice shall you pursue.’ What is this emphasis of Tzedek that it appears three times within three Psukim and again multiple more times throughout the Parsha?
Now let’s jump to the end of the Parsha. The last concept spoken about in the Parsha is the idea of Egla Arufa. The case is the following. A dead victim, presumably murdered, is found lying out in the fields between two cities. Those who investigate cannot figure out who he is and to which city he belongs. What do we do now? We measure to see which city he closest to and break the neck of a cow in order to achieve atonement.
Here too we need to look a little deeper and ask some questions. The Passuk says, “Ki Yimtza Chalal Asher… Nofel Ba’Sadeh”, ‘When you find a corpse who fell in the field. (What will happen?)’ “V’Yatzu Ziknecha V’Shoftecha” ‘And your elders and your judges shall come out (to the scene)’ And they will take a cow to the river and break it’s neck. They will say to Hashem ‘Forgive your people’.
“Ki Yimtza Chalal” – this word is translated as ‘corpse’ but it means ‘desecrated’ and ‘empty’, how is that relevant here? “Asher Nofel Ba’Sadeh” – Who fell in THE field, why so specific? It would be sufficient to say Bi’Sadeh, in a field! And who are the Ziknecha V’Shoftecha? Lastly, Why do the officiators involved need to request forgiveness on behalf of all of Am Yisrael?! It would be quite enough to ask on behalf of the suspected city to which the Challal was closest! And even that would be a lot, for it was not the whole city that was responsible, rather one person was the murderer!
And surely all of this is connected to the month of Elul, because Parshas Shoftim is always the first Parsha read in this month! Let’s pick out one specific detail of this month. The Arizal explains that Hashem’s name of Yud-Kay-Vav-Kay has twelve possible permutations not including the repeats. He goes further to say that each one of these is associated with a month of the year and attached to each one is a scriptural reference to which the permutation can be derived. For example, our month, the month of Elul’s permutation is Kay-Kay-Vav-Yud and it emerges from the line “U’Tzedaka Tihiye Lanu Ki” The line means ‘And there shall be Tzedeka for us’ and it emerges in that the last letter of each of those four words spells the permutation connected to this month.
But here is that term Tzedek again! How is this reference in the month of Elul connected to the same term used so often in our Parsha?
Let’s begin to answer our questions by understanding a deep and beautiful teaching from the Ba’al Shem Tov.
There is a famous line in Pirkei Avos that tells us that we should not judge our friend until we arrive in his place. The simple understanding is that you will never know exactly what someone has gone through that made him arrive at his current decision, and because you can’t know all the factors, don’t judge him negatively.
The Ba’al Shem Tov offers a mystical understanding. It is know that when we do a mistake, if we, heaven forbid, sin; God can address our mess-up in one of two ways: either He can look upon it favorably and find merit on our behalf, or the harsher option would be unleash the full wrath that the misdeed deserves. The first is kindness and the second is a harsher judgment.
But how does Hashem decide which to use in any given situation? The answer is that Hashem will allow a person to judge himself. How? He will present that person with the sight of someone doing the very same action, which he himself transgressed in the first place. If the man in our case judges the man he sees favorably, then Hashem will judge him favorably in return. But the opposite is also true; if the man in our story looks upon the second man with disdain and judgmentally, so too shall God look upon him, and the strict justice will be delivered in lieu of mercy.
This idea is hinted to in the line we mentioned before. ‘Don’t judge your friend until you arrive in his place.’ The meaning is that any time you are judging your firend it is because you are really judging yourself, you and he are standing in the same place. God has matched up two people who have done the same action in order to determine he best mode of Divine Response.
The rule that we get from here is that the way that we are judged in heaven is a direct response to how we treat our fellow Jew.
And this is the deeper meaning of Tzedek/Tzedaka. Unkelos in Parshas Va’Eschanan defines it as ‘Zechusa’ – Merit in Aramaic. If the goal of all justice is really to find MERIT – then we can begin to tie everything together.
When we say Selichos, when we begin to pray for mercy before Rosh HaShana the very first thing we say is Lecha Hashem HaTzedaka - To you Hashem is the ability to find merit. This is the starting point of all of our requests.
But it really starts from us, for Hashem will only treat us in this way if we treat others in the same manner and this is where Parshas Shoftim comes in.
Why does the Passuk in the start of Parsha switch from singular to plural? We notice that the command to appoint judges and officers applies to the individual, but to the rest of the nation? V’Shaftu Es Ha’Am Mishpat Tzedek. To yourself appoint judges and officers, be very strict, as strict as you want - with yourself. “Shoftim V’Shotrim Titen Lecha.” But when you come to judging everyone else? That is the time to employ Tzedek, V’Shaftu Es Ha’Am Mishpat Tzedek. This explains the general repetition of the term throughout the Parsha as well. A Parsha defined by its qualities of judgment (as evident by its name) needs to have the goal of all justice repeated again and again.
So what is happening by Egla Arufa? The Challal, literally ‘the empty one’ - devoid of spirituality; found randomly murdered, a punishment from Hashem that he certainly had coming to him, who mysteriously cannot be traced to any specific locale – certainly this man has many factors leaning towards seeing him unfavorably.
(This is the meaning of Ba’Sadeh - THE field. What is THE field? The influence of Eisav. Why? He is called Ish Sadeh. This man who fell in the field, it seems that this man seems totally and fully secularized on the outside.) All in all it is very difficult to find merit to this man who died without any clues.
But how do we respond? We send ‘Ziknecha V’Shoftecha.’ And who are they? Rashi tells us that it the Sanhedrin, the highest court from Yerushalayim. Why do we need them, the biggest court we have, to come and investigate? Because Yehshaya HaNavi calls Yerushalayim the Ir Tzedek - the city of Tzedek. Only the biggest judges from the city of merit are able to deal meritoriously with such an estranged man.
Reb Tzadok HaKohen points out that this whole concept of Egla Arufa is teaching us a lesson in Arvus, responsibility for the Jewish people. The highest court from the city which David HaMelech calls Ir She’Chubra LaYachdav’ it’s the city that brings people together – it is they who have the ability to approach the Chalal who has fallen into the Sadeh and find merit, even there. They have the ability to look at this situation and think, maybe Hashem did something to this man to teach a lesson to me, or the Jewish people as a whole! And as such they ask forgiveness on behalf of the entire Jewish people.
And all of this comes down to the fact that we use this Parsha to enter into the month of Elul, the month of “U’Tzedaka Tihiyeh Lanu Ki” – the month that if we can find merit in others, Hashem will find merit in us.
In a world where I am constantly trying my very best to find merit in everyone around me I can make my relationships with those around grow, and through that boost my connection with Hashem. Hashem created all sorts of people around me and He really wants us to get along. It’s a difficult but rewarding task that is truly life-transforming, and it is totally crucial step into making the most out of the Teshuva process.
B’Ezras Hashem we should be Zoche to operate in the world in such a beautiful fashion. For when we begin to place merit on others, Hashem begins to place merit on us. If we can do this then there is no doubt that we will all live lives of fulfillment and happiness, moving closer to the Creator and ultimately the redemption!