The Dirty Work – Parshat Shoftim 5777

The Dirty Work

When I was at summer camp as a kid, I had a love-hate relationship with the chore chart. Every cabin had a paper plate wheel that matched up your name with a task that was part of cleaning the cabin. The tasks included things like sweeping, laundry, garbage, and table server at mealtimes. They ranged from the most desired (easiest) chore of holding the dustpan, to the least desired (grossest) chore of cleaning the bathrooms.

However, everyone’s favorite spot on the wheel wasn’t a chore at all – it was a free spot, which gave one camper per day a break to sit back and relax while others did the work. I’d like to think that taking a turn on the free spot was rejuvenating and good for my soul, though I know it didn’t necessarily improve cabin morale, it just made the other campers yearn for their free day.

A benefit of having a chore chart is that the cabin stays clean, but the point of it all is to teach responsibility and the value of combining our efforts for a greater good. Each one of us has a role to play. The Torah makes this point as well. The Levites had certain defined responsibilities to the people, as did the Kohanim and the other tribes. Every person’s job throughout our journey in the desert was critical to the survival of the Israelites. But what framework did the Torah provide as we moved forward after our nomadic period? How did the responsibilities change once we were living in a firmly-rooted and established society?

We arrive at this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim. In Parshat Shoftim, a section of Torah that focuses entirely on the legal system, we read the commandment to establish judges and officers. We also cover a list of punishments for violating certain mitzvot, and we learn about laws regarding false witnesses and murder.

In chapter 19, verse 10 we read:

“Thus blood of the innocent will not be shed, bringing bloodguilt upon you in the land that the Lord your God is allotting you.”

This is the final line in a conversation about the communal responsibility to ensure public safety for society. The Talmud in tractate Makot uses this verse to infer that society is responsible for public safety in all regards, such as keeping the roads safe and drivable.

In the chore chart of life, having every position filled and accounted for is what keeps things running smoothly. But here’s the key: the responsibility for public safety does not fall solely on the law enforcers or the justice system. You don’t have to work in sanitation to do your part by composting and recycling, and you don’t have to work for ODOT to report dangerous road conditions. We are responsible for safety. We each have a role to play.

On a related note, any tips for convincing my kids that bathroom duty is in fact the best job on the chart?

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