Parshat Shoftim 2018
Traditionally, we speak about three branches of government, the executive, the legislative and the judicial, and how they should counterbalance one another. Yet in today’s parsha we see that the Torah talks about four branches, two of which just do not fit into our modern mode of governing. The parsha talks about Judges, Kings, Priests, and Prophets. Judges are the judicial, no problem. Kings are the executive, obviously. Then come the priests who must preside over the sacrificial aspects of the religion and annual religious activities. And finally we have the prophets. Who are they? Where would they fit into the scheme of governance? What is their function? These are some of the questions that our parsha raises.
Let’s examine the job description of each branch of government, then and now, and see how we are doing.
The judicial seems to be the most stable. Then and now its function is to assure that that there is no hanky-panky with the law and that punishment goes to those who deserve it, and not to others. To this end we are told in no uncertain terms that the judicial must be impartial, upstanding, uncorrupted and as much as possible – incorruptible.
I think that of all the many scandals we are exposed to in the news, those that reveal judicial wrongdoing affect us most deeply. Politics are dirty, politicians wallow in that dirt and so it is inevitable that some dirt, or more, will cling to them. At the same time, we expect the judiciary to be whistle-clean. When we hear of a judge who is implicated in some unsavory endeavor we shudder because the one arm of the government that can save us is being besmirched and thus weakened.
Next comes the king. We like to think of kings as omnipotent rulers who (in the classic mold – not today’s symbolic monarchies) have almost absolute power, given to them by God. But that’s not what our kings are or were supposed to be like. There are five basic commandments in the Torah that apply to kings of the Israelites: one, they must be Israelites not foreigners (which is why Herod was so fearful of being assassinated – he was an Edomite). Two, three and four, they must not take many wives, they must not have many horses and they must not amass too much gold and silver. (And if this makes you wonder how Solomon got away with doing all three – you are not alone.). And five, he must have a copy of the Torah and read from it every day, to remind him that he is ONE OF THE PEOPLE, not above them.
Many of Israel’s kings did not live up to these laws and today it is hard to apply such rules to the closest leader we have to a king, which is the prime minister. You can judge for yourself to what extent he fulfills these commandments, or whether he is even obligated to do so.
Did the Torah look kindly on taking an Israelite king? The wording is ambivalent and ambiguous at best. The people can have a king IF THEY WANT ONE, even though God is their king (as in Avinu Malkeinu – our father our king), and if THEY WANT TO BE LIKE THE OTHER NATIONS, even though we are supposed to be apart from the other nations. On the other hand, God must choose the king. What does that tell you?
Then we come to the priests. There was a time when sacrifices were the main component of religious life and sacrifices required priests to oversee the process. Can we say that today’s rabbis are like them? The priests received a portion of the sacrifices as their salary. Today’s rabbis in Israel receive salaries from our taxes, and the chief rabbinate does indeed try to control our lives in both religious and less than religious domains. But comparisons here obviously become tricky.
This leaves the prophet. In olden times his function was ex officio, serving as the sometimes unwanted link between God and the people, God and the king, God and the priest. During exile, when kings and priests were sidelined, the prophet still functioned, bringing words of warning or of compassion to the people, depending on their circumstances. Their role was to remind the people of the basic values underlying our history and to urge adherence.
Who does that today? Officially, we have a state comptroller who issues an annual report on governmental functioning which reads like the words of a prophet weeping, wailing and railing against the winds in a desert. And that’s how effective his reports are too.
So who are today’s prophets? They should be people who know our past and know where we should be and where we should be going. They should be emotionally involved with our people and worried about our deviations from the straight and true path.
In actual fact, we have thousands, millions of prophets, some who think they have a direct line upstairs. They are not only the writers on the op-ed pages and the talking heads on TV. They are the friends with whom we eat dinner and the local comedian whose jokes cut too deep to be funny.
Usually we choose prophets who suit our mindset, the ones who say what we want to hear, not necessarily what we should hear. Ideally, we should seek the pseudo-prophet whose message will bring us back to our core values. And there’s the rub. We each give our own spin to these core values. Only when we can thoroughly, profoundly and truthfully evaluate our real identity as Jews and as individuals will we be able to figure out who’s on first and what’s on second.
The high holidays are a good time to start that evaluation.