August 23, 2001
Law and Order
Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)
"Judges and officers shall you appoint in all of your cities."
This divine commandment to establish a judicial system serves as the basis of all Western law; a fair system affording protection to each of its citizens and guests.
Though this is a communal responsibility, it is stated in the singular, lecha. Why? Why is God talking to each of us as individuals? What message lies in this portion dealing with judges for us, the non-judge community?
Society needs to feel there is an operative judicial system. Community, as we know it, can only run when there is a feeling of justice.
The difference between anarchy and government is law and order. In anarchy, each does as her or she pleases, even at the expense of others; in government, a definite system is in place to protect the abuse of the innocent. I believe that the difference between the two is more than the presence or lack of deterrents. It is the very respect for justice, or lack of it, which creates society.
The Talmud tells us that the Great Court in Jerusalem suspended hearing capital cases at the end of the second Temple era when murder became rampant. Why? They should have heard the cases faster and carried out at the punishments swifter to keep up the pace.
The answer is the battle was already lost. There was no longer any respect for justice, and theirs' would just be another nail in the coffin of a rapidly deteriorating sense of order.
Why do you stop at stop signs? You may say that it's dangerous since another car may be approaching or perhaps a police officer is lying in wait and you can't afford another traffic violation. But let's say neither of these was a factor. If the road was clear with no police in the area, would you still stop? I think (and hope), yes.
But why, if there is no threat to your life or your insurance premium? There is a respect for law even when punishment is not a factor. But this effect is only present when there is an aura of an operative justice system in place. A cycle of chaos erupts when people are frustrated and feel there is no longer any sense of law and order, which can lead to more crimes, which leads back to more frustrated people.
That's why the Torah chose to give the command for the judicial system in the singular, when it is clearly intended as communal. Though the physical set-up and maintenance of a justice system rests upon the community, its respect rests with the individual.
Every one of us needs to have a healthy dose of respect for the law of the land and the advantages of government. This respect extends beyond traffic violations and shoplifting. It is a respect for our country, for our community, for our school and for our home that makes sure we don't do "that." The "that" may be in speech, such as refraining from cursing. It may be in refraining from littering and ruining our countryside or the "that" may be helping someone unload his or her car. It is the actions of each and every one of us that determines society, and it is the respect that we have for it that will ultimately determine how great a country our blessed land will be.