I am not thrilled with this derashah; I feel like the key idea (the Intimacy point expressed below) requires more thought and discussion. This is part of the oversimplification to which derashot are vulnerable, due to both their natural format and the timeframe afforded for developing them.
Last week, drawing on Parshat Reeh, I proclaimed the Torah’s support for big government. We talked about a pro-active Fed, regulation of lending, commerce and employment, government price-fixing and restraint of trade, all sanctioned by the Torah in the name of society’s health.
Today we’ll have to throw much of that out the window, though, because Parshat Shoftim argues that government is a necessary evil, that political and religious leadership are not a blessing but rather a reaction to human frailty.
Parshat Shoftim introduces us to four classes of leader - Shofet, Melech, Kohen, Navi - and all of them are what we call in Aramaic בדיעבד, “after the fact,” a necessity but not a happy one.
First, Shoftim introduces us to the role of Shofet, of Judge.
The judicial system is a cornerstone of Torah civilization, and is prescribed for all humanity. One of the seven Noachide laws requires all human beings to create laws and enforce them. Shoftim, judges, ruled over Jewish society after the death of Yehoshua’s generation, governing us for four centuries until the coronation of King Shaul.
The Shofet’s power is taken very seriously in the Torah: The judge must be honored; as our Torah says, “If the judge tells you that something is the law, even if he says right is left and left is right, you are required to listen.”
But the Torah seems to view judicial leadership as a sad reality rather than an ideal. As the Torah states it, “כי יהיה ריב בין אנשים, ונגשו אל המשפט ושפטום,” “When people fight, then go to the court for justice.” כי יפלא ממך דבר למשפט, when you are not capable of handling disputes, then go up the ladder of the courts until you reach the Supreme Court at the Beit haMikdash. We do have a hierarchy of courts - but the entire basis for the system is this: When you have a conflict, you need a judge. If there were no conflicts, there would be no need for judges.
The Torah then introduces us to another leader - the Melech, the king.
Society often needs strong government, leaders who will protect society’s least privileged members. Some of our kings were, indeed, sensitive to that responsibility. Pirkei Avot notes that even if our monarchs are corrupt, הוי מתפלל בשלומה של מלכות, we should pray for the welfare of the king, because if not for the monarchy, each person would swallow up the next.
The king, like the shofet, can expect full allegiance; one who is מורד במלכות, rebelling against the throne, earns capital punishment!
But the Torah appears ambivalent about this federal authority, too. The Torah does not provide us with a clear instruction, “Create a federal government.” Instead, ואמרת אשימה עלי מלך ככל הגויים אשר סביבותי, When you say, “We will place a king upon ourselves, like all of the nations around us,” then you can have a king. It’s a concession to our desire.
The third leader we meet is the Kohen, the priest responsible to coordinate operations in the Mishkan and Beit haMikdash.
Those Kohanim, as well as their first-cousins the Leviyyim, played a critical role in Jewish society, bringing offerings and overseeing and maintaining the Beit haMikdash. Some of them were our greatest religious figures; Aharon was a Kohen, Moshe was a Levi, and their descendants guided the nation.
Like the Shofet and the Melech, the Kohen’s domain is sacrosanct; no one may enter the kohen’s territory. Usurping the role of a kohen earns lashes, at least.
But the whole concept of Kehunah and Leviyyah was really a correction for a problem; at first, as Rashi explains, we were not supposed to have a Beit haMikdash at all, let alone a class of religious officials. HaShem wished to dwell among us, in our homes and in our lives, and we were going to relate to HaShem directly. It was only after we created the עגל, the Golden Calf, that HaShem declared ועשו לי מקדש, that we would need a central site for worship, with dedicated workers who would staff that central site.
And, finally, we meet the Navi, the prophet who conveys messages from HaShem to the nation.
I would think that if any leader would be ideal, it would be the Navi - he talks directly to HaShem, and conveys guidance to the nation. Yeshayah, Yirmiyah, Eliyahu, Elisha, neviim are the giants of Tanach, earning praise far surpassing that of all but the best of our kings. So, what could be better than having a navi?
The Navi, too, is protected; those who refuse to follow a navi are harshly punished. And regarding a Jew who pretends to be a navi, Gd says אנכי אדרוש מעמו, I will deal justice to him.
But our parshah describes the Navi as a בדיעבד institution as well. Moshe tells the Jews that HaShem had really wanted to speak to each of them individually. It was only after the Jews retreated from Sinai and said, “We cannot hear from Gd directly, the closeness is too much,” that Gd said, “Fine, I see this is what you need right now, so I will appoint intermediaries to communicate with you.”
So why do we need these leaders and their laws? If Gd didn’t want these functionaries, if Gd wanted us to be able to function without shofeit or kohen, then why did He create us this way?
One answer, I think, is that all of the problems which led us to need judge and king, kohen and navi, stemmed from one fundamental element of our design: Ever since Adam, we have been created as proud individuals, our souls and bodies separated from all others, with the strength of independence and all of the positives it brings. We recognize ourselves as islands, our primary interest is to look after our own well-being, and every relationship, every interaction, is judged based upon how it will affect our independent strength.
The downside of all of this independence is that it comes with an inability to handle immediacy, intimacy:
*Intimacy with other people: We need a shofeit because we have a natural selfishness which traumatizes our relationships; we need a melech because we cannot unite ourselves.
*And intimacy with Gd: We need a kohen because we aren’t ready to be close to Gd; we need a navi for the same reason.
Of course, we do seek community, and we do act selflessly at times, to fill our pragmatic needs - to provide comfort or protection or resources, or to fill some other psychological or practical gap. We seek HaShem, too, generally because of some need within ourselves. But these practical needs tend to be more utilitarian than idealistic.
We erect barriers against too close an intimacy with others, lest we make ourselves vulnerable to harm. Emotions are concealed, apologies are scarce, rights are fiercely protected, and only the power of the law and the lawsuit can wrestle concessions from our tight grasp.
We shy away from too intense a sharing of our with Gd, lest we become drawn into a religion which will eliminate our individuality. It’s the old phenomenon of vicarious Judaism - having the rabbi be the professional Jew, doing “all the right things,” so to speak, so that other people won’t have to.
Enter these leaders, as mediators - kings and judges to mediate our relationships with other people, priests and prophets to mediate our relationship with HaShem.
But these roles, I am convinced by our parshah and by the predictions of the neviim, are not meant to last forever. As the neviim themselves predict, there will come a day when we will all be neviim, כי מלאה הארץ דעה את ה', the earth will be filled with knowledge of HaShem. We will all be a nation of kohanim, and we will not need special kohanim. No longer will we seek physical gain at the expense of others, and so the שופט’s role will be reduced to handling misunderstandings. And our final king will be a mashiach who will lead us as a nation to reach this ultimate state.
Our task is to evolve, to understand that embracing other people does not eliminate our sovereignty as individuals, to accept that an intense embrace of HaShem does not mean the end of our personalities and identities, to render these leadership models obsolete. Through acts of generosity - political generosity, financial generosity, emotional generosity - we can draw closer to others, step by step, until we are one. And through acts of piety - davening, learning, observing the mitzvot - we can draw closer to HaShem.
There is one day during the year when we achieve this intimacy with our neighbors and with HaShem: Yom Kippur.
*We discard all distractions of food and physical pleasures, to spend the day focussing on Gd.
*Right at the outset we announce that we have come to pray as one, ignoring barriers for 25 hours until we embrace each other with the shofar blast in our ears and ה' הוא האלקים on our lips, at the close.
In this month of Elul, let’s set the stage for that evolution, apologizing to others for our wrongs and then apologizing to HaShem as well, breaking down barriers of self-consciousness as well as denial, and so come to HaShem and to society on Yom Kippur prepared not to rely on a king or judge, priest or prophet, but to commune with Man, and with HaShem, ourselves.
1. On the "Lo Tasur" protection for a Shofet, see the difference between Sanhedrin 89, which I cited here, and the Sifri to the same pasuk.
2. I adopted Rashi's view on the origin of the Mishkan/Beit haMikdash, as a make-up for the Golden Calf. However, even with Ramban's view that there was always to be a central site, the firstborn were originally to do that work, so that a greater cross-section of the nation would have been represented, and that changed with the Eigel.
3. I am going out on a limb with my description, at the end, of the messianic period as a time when intentional sin will be more or less eliminated. This is actually not clear at all.