This week’s portion is “Shoftim” (Deuteromony 16:18 – 21:9). Shoftim means judges and officers and the portion starts out by Moses telling the people to establish a judiciary system within each of their tribes. He also tells them that judging should be fair for all involved and no one is to get preferential treatment for any reason. We also see the famous line, “Justice, justice shall you pursue”, that the Israelites are to be scrupulous in administering justice.
The Israelites are also not to plant any trees near or next to any altars to Hashem, that they not be mistaken for alters or signs themselves.
Chapter 17 admonishes the Israelites not to sacrifice any animals that may have blemishes; their offerings need to be pure.
Again, the people are told that anyone in their midst who is found to be transgressing the covenant and worshipping other gods or heavenly bodies as gods is to be investigated thoroughly. If it is found to be true, they are to be stoned to death.
Within this commandment is the criteria that there must be at two witnesses that can verify this action, and only if two witnesses verify will capital punishment be carried out. To stress the severity of this responsibility, these two witnesses will be the first to carry out the execution. If the matter is too difficult for the lower court to decide, they are to go to a higher court.
The Israelites are told that they can establish a king. The king will be from their own people and no foreigner is to rule over them. The king is not to amass horses or multiple wives or gold and silver. The king is to write out a copy of Torah and study it constantly and consistently.
Chapter 18 addresses the status of the priest and Levite ministers. They have no portion of their own but serve G-d on behalf of the Israelites. They are to receive their due from the people in the form of sacrifices and first fruits of produce and flocks.
The Israelites are warned not to accede to any pagan rituals or practices. They are warned against endangering children in rites and not to consult soothsayers, enchanters, sorcerers, or necromancers. The people are only to listen to G-d’s prophets who will prove themselves by sticking to Torah and any prophecies that come to pass.
Chapter 19 addresses the sanctuary cities. They are to establish three (aside from the three in TransJordan) with the possibility of eventually establishing yet another three. This is for someone who accidentally kills someone and needs to escape from the blood avenger, the relative of the deceased who seeks that person for revenge.
However, anyone who lays in wait to murder someone will not be granted sanctuary under any circumstances. If that person is found guilty, they are to be executed, no exceptions.
When they settle the land they are to establish boundaries. No one is to move or alter those boundaries.
Once again, Moses tells the Israelites that two witnesses are needed to find a defendant guilty. If someone bears false witness against someone, when they are discovered, they receive the punishment that would have judged. We are reminded life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Chapter 20 discusses the conditions for going into battle. They should not fear any enemy, even one that appears superior because G-d is with them.
Prior to battle, the officers will address the people. Anyone who has been betrothed and not consummated their marriage or planted a vineyard and not yet harvested or built a house and not yet lived in it is excused from battle. Also, anyone who is faint hearted about going into battle will be excused that they not influence others to not fight.
As they approach a city to do battle, they will first offer their enemies the opportunity to surrender and live in peace. But they will also be tributaries and serve their victors, the Israelites. If not , they are to be defeated completely. They are to completely obliterate the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.
They should also not destroy any trees that bear fruit. However, they can use the wood of non-fruit bearing trees for supplies.
Chapter 21 completes this portion addressing a dead person who is found between cities. The elders will establish the closest city. They will then break the neck of a heifer and declare that they had nothing to do with that person’s death. They will then give that person a proper burial. Part of the reason for this is to publicize and see if anyone may know something and come forward to solve the murder.