Friday, August 21, 2020

Societal Institutions

It has been a tumultuous summer of epic proportions. There has been significant unrest after the senseless death of George Floyd. Many have advocated reforms in police departments while others some have even called to defund and abolish the police entirely. Emotions are running high and the fact that this is taking place in the middle of a pandemic doesn’t help. This week's Parsha of Shoftim addresses the various institutions vital in making our society function in a just and fair manner. The Torah teaches us about the judicial system, the political system, and the leadership of faith leaders. The Torah opens up with the words שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן־לְךָ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶיךָ or you shall place judges and officers in all of your gates. The responsibility of setting up a judicial system with officers and judges is a bedrock of civilization. This mitzvah is not just incumbent on the Jewish people but on society as a whole. This is one of the seven Noahide laws. The famous words etched on the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court of Equal Justice Under The Law have biblical roots in our Parsha. The Torah cautions the Judges to adjudicate in a fair manner and apply justice equally to all citizens. The role of political leadership in the Torah is addressed with the mitzvah to appoint a monarch as head of government. The Torah grants the king authority in many areas of life from collecting taxes, to conscripting soldiers and much in between. The monarch’s description is remarkable in the sense of how much restraint it places on the King for him to pursue materialism. It also emphasizes the responsibility for the monarch to have a Sefer Torah at his side. The purpose of this Mitzvah is for the King always to be reminded of the awesome task in front of him and not to be swayed by his power. Finally, we learn about the roles of religious leaders and how they play an important role in society. The Kohanim, Prophets, and Sages are all an integral part of ensuring that the population is educated and connected to G-d and the stewards of making sure that Jewish continuity is preserved from generation to generation. Here again, we learn not only of their role but also of their accountability. The Torah teaches us in Parshas Mishpatim that a Kohein may be removed from the altar in the middle of performing a service to be prosecuted for a crime that he committed. An important takeaway from studying these societal institutions is learning about the essential role they have in society. Indeed, the Mishna in Pirkei Avos, teaches us about the importance of praying for the welfare for the government and its heads of state. It’s important to note that the importance of praying on their behalf is not only if your preferred candidate is elected. At the same time, the authority of these institutions and the people that oversee them can never be left unchecked. An appropriate balance of healthy and robust political, judicial, and religious institutions with accountability is the foundation of a good and just society.

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