Parenting By Parsha: Shoftim

This morning we had a little bit of a sharing challenge in our home. Every once in a while, our little one gets to hang out with a good friend as part of a nanny-share. These two toddlers are besties from birth; they’ve been hanging out since infancy. Navigating new toys is hard, though, no matter how long you’ve known one another. 

The situation wasn’t dire by anyone’s standards. All that happened was that our kiddo was playing with a toy and his friend came in and took it away, ostensibly because she wanted to play with it as well. It was very quick, and I was saying hi to the babysitter so I missed the actual exchange. In about one second, though, my kid was holding onto my knees and crying. 

We smoothed things out easily by reviewing how to ask for toys and agreeing on a plan for taking turns. And peace returned to the living room. 

This has been happening more and more lately — at the playground, during nanny-share times, and with adults who are playing with our kid. Sometimes a kid grabs something from him, but sometimes he’s the one hoarding markers or magnetic tiles. I can only imagine that this will continue to come up once preschool starts in a month or so. Sharing isn’t easy, as it turns out. 

Patience may be a virtue, but taking turns sure doesn’t come naturally. As a result, us mamas find ourselves in the role of arbiter or judge very often. 

This week’s Torah portion is all about governmental structures and positions of power. The very name of the portion is Shoftim, which translates as Judges. Later, there will be a whole book about Judges, and this section of the Torah is like a little prequel to that later exploration of leadership roles. 

What is the role of the Judges? How about the King? Who can be anointed as royalty, and what are the rules for his position? Let’s not forget prophets, either. This portion gives us an overview of how to tell a false prophet from one who speaks with the voice of God. (Basically, wait to see if what the prophet says comes true. If it doesn’t, this person must be false.)

Maybe it’s because I assumed that justice in the Bible will be harsh and unforgiving, but it surprised me how many checks and balances are found in this portion. The biblical text is very clear about the importance of having leaders who are not all-powerful. “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just,” reads Deuteronomy 16:19. 

The Levites, who are set aside as the Priests, might be assumed to be above everyone else, but that’s not how it goes. Instead, they don’t get land of their own, which makes them dependent on the rest of the tribes. This is a smart way of ensuring that they show no partiality when performing religious rites for other tribes, as opposed to themselves.

And then there’s the king. Despite being the ruler of the Israelites, the king “shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses […] and he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.” (Deuteronomy 17:16-18)

Why are there so many rules for someone who, in other cultures, is thought to be omnipotent? The answer comes swiftly, in Deuteronomy 17:20, “Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left.”

In short, humans are fallible. Sharing, patience, and justice don’t come naturally. Which is why we need some boundaries and guidance. 

Justice is a thorny word — what’s just for one situation won’t necessarily apply to another one. Moreover, I certainly don’t agree with all of the examples for justice put forth by the portion here (such as stoning someone to death for worshipping other deities). I do, however, have a whole lot of admiration for the struggle for justice that’s clearly present in the text. Not only is the biblical author trying his darndest to create a balance of power, he’s also trying to parse the particulars of various situations. For instance, the commandment to create cities of refuge (places where those who have committed accidental homicide can be safe from blood-avengers) is just one fascinating attempt to discern different types of crimes and their societal implications. 

The Torah is trying to think outside the box about hierarchy, equality, and justice. While I don’t think the Bible gets it totally right, the idea of thinking creatively about these concepts is pretty cool. As my wife and I struggle to find the right answer to each situation that arises, it’s reassuring to know that these are questions that my ancestors have been wrestling with for millenia. We’re not alone here, and all we can do is keep trying. 

“Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive,” says Deuteronomy 16:20, and if there’s one thing I’ll take with me from this week’s Torah portion it’s that the commandment is to continue my pursuit, never consider the struggle over and one with — both in my parenting, and in my overall Jewish life. The commandment to never give up the pursuit of justice starts with playground skirmishes and continues into all aspects of our adult lives. Seeing the connections between the biblical text, the parenthood challenges, and the virtues we exemplify to our kiddo gives me the strength to keep it up, that we may all thrive.