Watch for my new book, Parashot Drashim- Commentary on the Weekly Torah Readings for Both Jews and Gentiles, to be released sometime in September 2018.
If you prefer to watch a video, click on this link: Watch the video.
In the previous parashah, God reminded the people of the Holy Days (the Moedim) that they are to observe when they are in the Promised Land. Now God tells them to appoint judges in all their cities who are to judge rightly:
(Deut. 16:20) “Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the Lord, thy God giveth thee.”
God instructs the judges that no one is to be executed unless there are two or three witnesses, and if a witness gives a false testimony then what was to happen to the accused will be done to that false witness. God also tells them when they ask for a king that the king must be an Israelite and also read and follow every commandment God has given.
God reminds the Levites of their role, and how they are to receive payment from the offerings brought to God.
God tells the people that he will raise up for them a prophet like Moses who will have God’s words in his mouth. God also confirms his commandments against worshiping any other gods, and that those living in the land now are to be totally destroyed because of all the evil they have done.
There are commandments regarding the laws of warfare, which include not destroying fruit trees, reasons some men can be excused from military service and that those people who were not to be utterly destroyed would be given a chance to make peace before the Israelites attacked them.
Finally, God gives the means by a city or town that has an unsolved murder can be absolved of the blood guilt.
How can there be justice if the Canaanites were to be totally destroyed? Women (not virgins) and young males were to be slaughtered, often along with all their animals, as well. This is justice? On the other hand, causing the sin of a false witness to fall on his own head and requiring more than just one witness in a case of capital punishment certainly is a just and fair system. So how do we reconcile these two, apparently opposite decrees?
We do so by remembering one of the most basic and repetitious of all God’s commandments to his people- they are to be holy, as he is holy.
That means not even a trace amount of sin should be found anywhere in their camps, towns, cities or homes. Keeping animals that are unclean, or devoted to another god, would be wrong. Allowing those who God has judged to death for their sinful, unrepentant pagan religions and worship would be sinful, rebellious and would lead the people of God into sin (as we saw happen in Numbers 25.)
The regulations about keeping any form of sin out of the camp, which can be expanded to mean out of the lives of the people of God, was necessary to help maintain the holiness of God’s chosen people. Remember, these were a people that were to be priests to the world (Exodus 19:6) so everything they did, every day, must be designed to avoid sin. Although it seems cruel to us today, in those days total destruction of the conquered peoples was standard. The fact that God said people who were not on the “Holy Hit List” could be allowed to live if they surrendered is a demonstration of the compassion that God has for all people.
And the complete destruction of the sinful people is a demonstration of the awesomeness of God’s judgment.
Micah tells us (Micah 6:8) that what God wants is justice, mercy and to walk humbly with God. We cannot walk anywhere near God, let alone with him if we are sinful. Justice was the first thing God had Micah tell the people was what he wanted of them. Justice, then mercy and finally to walk humbly with God.
To the Jewish mindset, justice is an important and holy thing which encompasses more than just hearing both sides of a story. The Greek idea of justice (under Plato’s definition) means a harmonious social arrangement which confirms separation of human rights in that slaves are subservient to their masters and should be content to be so. The Hebrew form of justice is that which requires the equality of human rights. Even a condemned criminal that has been hanged must have his body removed before sundown (Deuteronomy 21:23) as a sign of respect for him as a human being.
Each of us must respect everyone as a separate human being with rights, even when they are sinning and unrepentant. Justice must be given fairly- no bribes, no special treatment for poor or rich, and there must be multiple witnesses whose witness has to be validated and truthful.
When we deal with the darkness in the world, we must be a light which exposes sin and also shines brightly to lead others to the truth.
Do not allow yourself to be turned one way or the other when you are in a position to judge others. This means not just in a criminal court but in your everyday life. If you are a manager and have to write an evaluation, your personal feelings towards the person, good or bad should not influence your evaluation of their value to the company or the quality of their work. If you are in a social group where people are gossiping about each other, you must separate yourselves from those who gossip and be an example of fairness. Try not to talk about someone else unless you are complimenting them; if you have nothing good to say about someone else, then say nothing.
These are hard things for us to do, as human beings, because we are so full of emotion, which is so easily affected by our iniquity. Justice is something that must be above emotion, above personal desire and above our own idea of what “should be.” Justice must be based on established law and accepted behaviors, whether or not we individually agree with those laws or behaviors, and always based on the person’s rights as a human being and a child of God.
To be holy as God is holy is not easy; when we have to judge someone else, for whatever reasons, maybe the best way to start is to “put ourselves in their shoes.” Everyone has a right to decide for themselves what they will do and how they will act, whether that be the judge or the judged. The downside of this right to decide is that God will hold each of us accountable for those decisions, whether you make it yourself or you just do what someone else told you to do.
That should be a very sobering thought.