"Judges and officers shall you make for yourselves in all of your gates, which the Lord your God has given you for your tribes; and they will judge the people with righteous judgment" (Deut. 16:18). With these words our parashah, Parashat Shoftim, begins its description of the system of justice that is to govern the life of the Israelite people as they enter the land of Israel.
On first examination, the legislation is straightforward — grand yet fundamental. But listen to what one commentator, the Hatam Sofer, saw beneath the surface of the text.
The Hatam Sofer recalls the ancient rabbinic midrash on the verses: "I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in loving kindness and in mercy. And I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you shall know God" (Hosea 2:21-2).
In the betrothal agreement between God and Israel so majestically described in these verses, each party brings different gifts to the partnership. As the midrash reads these verses, God brings the loving kindness and mercy to the relationship, Israel brings the righteousness and justice, and it is in the union of these separate gifts that the covenant of love between God and Israel is sealed.
The Hatam Sofer uses this midrash as a key to understanding the new justice system for the Land of Israel. Our verse says that God has given us a beautiful land ("in all your gates, which the Lord your God has given you for your tribes"); it is our job to be sure that justice and righteousness rule in that land ("Judges and officers shall you make for yourselves…and they will judge the people with righteous judgment") (Itturei Torah, Vol. 6., Page 106).
What a striking reading of the division of labor between God and Israel. First, the very image of complementarity is fascinating, as if to describe the divine-human relationship as an egalitarian marriage. Then again, what an interesting way to understand which are the divine roles and responsibilities in this union, and which are the human tasks.
So often, when I talk with people in pain who are struggling to understand the role of the Divine in human life, it seems that God's role is to bring the inexplicable, the harsh or even the cruel experiences of life. For many of us, when we encounter pain and tragedy, the questions arise: "Why? Why could God let this happen? Couldn't it have been stopped?" And, of course, "Why me?"
Somewhere in the course of this exploration, the idea often emerges that, while the ways of the world are so obviously unfathomable at these times, the human response is clear. When God/Life brings pain, people bring love and compassion. When life brings tragedy, horror and loss, people must bring to one another care and kindness.
Yet, look again at the midrashic reading, and the Hatam Sofer's use of it in understanding our verse. He says that it is God who brings loving kindness and compassion; we who must create a world of justice. This midrash turns our usual thinking on its head. God is the primary source of love; we, the primary legislators of justice.
Recently, as I spent a week at Elat Chayyim, a Jewish spiritual retreat center, I heard a different theology begin to emerge. I heard people wrestling with a theological possibility that moved beyond any of the usual dichotomies. I heard people struggling to fathom something larger than most of us can imagine: a Power who is present both in sorrow and in blessing. As one of my students put it, God is both in the splinter and in the cushion. This is a God who is larger than our usual categorizations.
So, too, we, who were created with the spark of God within us, have both dimensions of life within us. We have the capacity to do justice, to make righteousness reign in the human realm, to fashion our words, our relationships and our social institutions in the image of a God of justice. And we, imbued with the spark of divine mercy, have the ability to bring the touch of goodness to every interaction, as long as we remember who we were created to be.
This Shabbat, as we read this parashah about justice, and as we enter the month of Elul, let us take the time to look within. May this month of Elul, preparatory to the High Holidays, help us to bring the balance of our divine tasks more fully in view.