Parshat Shoftim underscores the vital role that law and order play in Jewish life.
The portion opens with the commandment to establish a judicial system in the Land of Israel. Every city is to have courts and judges, as well as officers to enforce the decisions of the court. A judge must treat all of the litigants equally, and is not permitted to accept bribes or gifts from any of them. Also, two witnesses are necessary to establish a case in court. One witness or circumstantial evidence is not sufficient.
If the Jews wish to appoint a king, they should choose someone who is a Jew. He can live a royal lifestyle as befits a king; however, he must not live a life of excess. He carries a Torah scroll wherever he goes as a preventive measure to keep him on the “straight and narrow.”
The Torah then discusses foreign policy. The Jews are commanded always to offer the enemy the possibility of making peace. However if they are to go to war, they are instructed not to fear the enemy, and to trust in G-d's power. The parsha lists categories of people who are exempt from military service. Interestingly, the Jews are not permitted to destroy good things for the sake of the war effort; fruit trees, for example, may not be cut down for their wood.
The portion concludes with the case of a corpse that is found between two cities. The city nearest the corpse is considered partially responsible for the person's death, for had it provided an escort for the person, the murder could have been prevented. They must bring an eglah arufah (an axed heifer) to atone for their negligence.
The Right to Privacy
The secret of success of totalitarian governments is to expose other people’s secrets. People are encouraged to inform on anyone who dares to speak out, even in private, against the regimes despotic policies. This results in no one trusting anybody. Parents don’t trust children, and relatives don’t confide in each other for fear that their loved one doubles as a government agent.
This behavior was rampant in the former Soviet Union where everyone was suspected to be a KGB agent. The same scenario was played out in Iraq. Even when the coalition forces took over the country, Iraqi citizens were afraid to speak out against Baath Party loyalists. They feared the Baathists would regain power and persecute those who dared criticize them. Only after Uday and Qusai Hussein were killed did people feel comfortable to speak out openly against Iraqi officials. Informants have contributed mightily to help coalition forces capture other Saddam-era officials.
A culture of informants stifles human creativity. People need to feel confident that they can do what suits their interests without the fear of surveillance. They need to know that they have their “space” where they can unwind or do what they please. It is our job to respect that inherent human right. Nations that value human rights, such as the U.S., understand this concept and enact laws to protect the privacy of their citizens.
This week’s Torah portion emphasizes the importance of this concept to a healthy, vibrant society. The Torah commands us not to stealthily move the fence between our property and our neighbor’s and to add to our field. Why does the Torah have to mention such a specific type of theft? The Torah already stated numerous times that it is forbidden to steal!
Perhaps the Torah is teaching us the value of privacy. A fence serves two purposes. It marks the property line between neighbors. It also protects each neighbor from peering into what the other party is doing. Each homeowner can do what he pleases in his yard without feeling that someone is looking over his shoulder. When one moves the fence over and intrudes on his neighbors property he’s not only stealing his physical space, he is also taking away his emotional security. He’s stealing his right to peace of mind.
The Torah is more than just a handbook of laws and commandments. It teaches us how to live respectfully with others by ensuring everyone the necessary privacy to pursue his or her individual interests.
The Torah warns us in this week’s portion not to resort to witchcraft and other types to find out our future. We are to be whole with G-d. Why shouldn’t we be able to find out what the future holds for us?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that everything that happens in our life has purpose to it. G-d places us in certain circumstances, both positive and negative through which we grow to fulfill our mission in life. When one resorts to witchcraft he intones that there are certain areas that are up to fate. No one controls them. Thus he is diminishing the concept of G-d in his life. If things happen by fate and circumstances, that means there’s no such thing as reward and punishment. Things just happen by themselves. Thus the Torah warns us not to resort to such ideas for they undermine the authoritative role G-d plays in our life.
We must respect people’s privacy in order for each person to thrive as healthy individuals. People need to feel confident that they can do what suits their interests without fearing that someone is looking at them. They need to know that they have their “space” where they can unwind or do what they please. It is our job to respect that inherent human right.