Above the Law – Parshat Shoftim 5778

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Rules don’t always apply to everyone. There are plenty of examples in the home where decisions are meant for the younger set. Rules like “no ice cream for dessert tonight” might be what we tell the kids, and then I have a spoonful after they go to bed. Or it’s “no TV on weekdays,” except the minute they’re asleep Duncan and I can’t wait to catch up on our shows. It’s not that as the parents we are above the law, but it is true that as the rule makers we may have different needs, and we have the ability to bend the rules to meet those needs.

Laws, however, are different than rules. Our duty to obey the law is pretty crystal clear, and that responsibility falls on everyone the same way, no matter their position in society. In fact, part of what makes laws work is that they apply to everyone, with the objective to create a fair, orderly, and just society.

This week the Torah reading reminds us of this fact. The portion is Parshat Shoftim, a section of Torah that completely focuses on the legal system and specifically on justice and the context of the laws. This text includes the commandment to establish judges and officers, as well as a listing of punishments for certain transgressions against mitzvot (commandments). We also learn about the laws surrounding false witnesses and murder. Ultimately, it’s a sense of fairness and justice that’s at the heart of creating these laws.

Chapter 17, verses 14-15 raise the question as to whether or not the king is actually required to live according to the mitzvot. On the one hand, the king is not considered to be a god or of divine birth. Even though the king is seen as being approved by God, the king is also a servant of the people, required to uphold standards, solve disputes, and wage war if necessary. Verse 18 then teaches that the king has the responsibility of writing his own Torah scroll or having it written for him. It’s this requirement that reminds us that the king is not above the law, but subject to it like everyone else. Even the king must obey the words of the Torah.

We live in a world where all the time we see people in positions of power trying to overstep their bounds, ignore the laws, or try to get away with something. Whether it’s a teenager thinking she’s invincible or a politician skirting tax laws, thinking laws don’t apply to you comes at a severe price when those laws catch up with you. The Torah this week in Shoftim reminds us that we are all equal in God’s eyes. Whether you’re a leader or a follower, the words of the Torah still apply. We are all kings of our own castles, all beholden to the same standard: to uphold that which is right and just and to teach the next generation to do the same.

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