Although the name of each Torah portion is taken from the opening words of that portion, the name of the Torah portion is neither meaningless nor the product of mere happenstance. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, echoing earlier sages, found great significance in the name of each Torah portion, and showed how the name encapsulates the theme of the entire portion.
With this in mind, the name of this week’s Torah portion, “Shoftim” (“Judges”) is puzzling. After all, this week’s Torah portion discusses not just the role of the judge, but also the role of many other types of leaders as well, including the judge, police officer, kohain, levite, chief judge, chief kohain, king, prophet, elder, kohain of warfare, military officer, and army commander.
How then does the title, “Shoftim,” encapsulate the theme of the entire Torah portion? And why is it that of all of the various leadership roles, it is the role of the judge that is highlighted?
Indeed, the king, prophet, and chief kohain are seemingly more important than the judge. Should the portion be named after one of them? Alternatively, perhaps the name of the Torah portion could have been “Leaders.” So, again, why “Shoftim”? What is it about the role of the judge that is all encompassing?
In the Book of I Kings (3:9), King Solomon, the wisest of all men, asks God, “Who is able to judge this [Jewish] people of yours?” The Sifri, a Biblical commentary, explains that King Solomon was questioning why God is so exacting with Jewish judges. King Solomon wondered why God grants the judges of the world immunity from a wrong decision, but does not afford that same immunity to Jewish judges.
In Jewish thought, a gentile judge who mistakenly rules incorrectly suffers no Heavenly consequence or retribution. For example, a judge who acted in good faith is not held accountable for a decision that wrongly caused an innocent person a financial loss, imprisonment or even execution.
By stark contrast, God holds accountable a Jewish judge for wrongly judging, regardless of the judge’s good faith and even where the judge’s error caused only a financial loss! Not only that, but a Jewish judge who errs even on only a monetary claim may forfeit his life at the hands of Heaven. The Sifri derives this draconian standard of Heavenly judicial review from Biblical verses in Proverbs (22:22-23) that King Solomon himself, with Divine inspiration, penned: “Do not oppress the poor in the gates [of judgment]. For God will take up their grievance; He will steal the life of those who would steal from the poor.”
The reason why Jewish judges are held so highly accountable is because they represent God Almighty Himself! A Jewish court sitting in judgment is called by the name of God, “Elokim” (Exodus: 22:8). When a Jewish judge errs in judgment, someone who discerns the injustice may assume that the injustice was caused by the Torah itself, or perhaps even God himself, Heaven forfend. This is especially so for the wrongly-losing litigant. Put succinctly, an erroneous judgment can cause a crisis of faith.
While this is most true for judges, it is certainly true as well for all Jewish leaders. Rabbis, principals, teachers, even day camp counselors represent God. If you are one, proceed with trepidation because your flaws may be perceived as God’s flaws.
But there is also a lesson for all the rest of us. We are all judges of sorts. In a sense, we all have the power to confer life or condemn. With Solomonic judgment, we must strike the proper balance between discipline and encouragement. Act too harshly to a child, loved one, or student, and you rob them of the life and vitality that God and Torah has to offer. How many Jews have lost their faith because their Hebrew teacher was mean to them?! How many Jews have cast away their Jewish identity because their parents disciplined instead of teaching the true beauty of each and every mitzvah? Yes, sometimes we need to rebuke and punish; more often we need to support and encourage.
Now we can understand why all Jewish leadership positions fall under the rubric of Shoftim — Judges. All leaders must lead judiciously, and the stakes are high for all leaders. Let us all proceed with caution. And may we experience the Talmudic promise (Sanhedrin: 7a): “All who judge in truth will cause God’s presence to dwell among the Jewish people.”