Parshat Shoftim: Seeking Great Leaders

“Leaders do not do the work on behalf of the people. They teach people how to do the work themselves.” – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l

Parshat Shoftim is a call to just and moral leadership: Appoint judges; Don’t judge unfairly; Don’t take bribes nor be partial and famously, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Who exactly is being commanded to fulfill these crucial mitzvot?

At first, it seems these words are directed at judges. However, several commentaries suggest otherwise. These verses seem to be speaking not only to leaders, but also to individuals. The Sefer Hachinuch teaches that the biblical command to appoint judges (referring to a religious court – beit din) is “incumbent on every community, in every place.” The establishment of just and moral leadership comes about partly through the people who appoint them. This idea is further reinforced by the interpretation of “צדק צדק תרדוף” – “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” The midrash Sifrei teaches that this means you (the individual) must “seek out the finest beit din.” We, the people, can take steps to ensure true justice.

This verse is appropriately also applied to Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi, compiler of the Mishna and a model of wise, compassionate and just leadership. The Talmud in Ketubot teaches “pursue justice” means: run to Rebbe’s beit din in Beit Shearim. This appears in the story of Rebbe’s last will and testament, where he practices outstanding leadership even on his deathbed. He ensures the continued honor of his widow (who was only stepmother to his children) and the honor of his household servants. He set up continuity of leadership through his sons and values fear of sin in a leader over great wisdom. He balances honor to a Torah scholar who has died (himself) alongside humility. May we be blessed with the ability to choose similar moral, just and compassionate leaders in our time. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

*Photo from

Courageous Women

“The best protection any woman can have…is courage.” – Elizabeth Cady Stanton

In discussing the laws of going to war, parshat Shoftim provides a model for coping with fears and anxieties as well as insight into what courage and commitment look like in serving one’s nation.

When the people approach a battlefield, the kohen is instructed to address them. His speech encourages the people to overcome their fear and to rely on their belief in Hashem as a source of strength. True courage is when one takes action despite one’s fears. In a voluntary war, the Torah lists several groups of exemptions due to circumstance. Surprisingly — given the kohen’s previous exhortations to overcome fear — the list of exempted people culminates with a person who is “afraid and disheartened.” Rabbi Akiva understands this to be literal: the Torah recognizes that some may be unable to overcome their anxiety, and ensures that they are encouraged to leave so they do not spread panic.

However, in a biblically mandated war (milchemet mitzvah) such as a war of self-defense, everyone is required to participate, even those who are fearful. Necessity and duty outweigh fear. According to the Mishna, even women are included in a milchemet mitzvah. The Radbaz says this is only a suggestion, and states that women served in support roles but not in combat. This is the halakhic basis for women who choose to serve in non-combat units in the IDF.

Stepping up (and leaning in) takes courage. This week marked the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. The right to contribute to society — to vote, to pursue education, to choose to serve in the IDF — may seem natural for women today, but it took courage and vision. Drawing on the strength and courage of the women and men who fought to make the world better, there is much more we can do. Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov