Shoftim: Enabling Evil

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Evil does not exist in a vacuum. A culture is needed for evil to be nurtured, in which it can grow and develop. And when that happens, aveirah gorreret aveirah; one misdeed leads to another, greater sin. Perpetrators of corporate wrongdoing do not begin by defrauding shareholders of billions of dollars. Rather, they might begin with a little plagiarism in college, and some padding of a resume. They may then move on to borrow office supplies for personal use, to fail to declare some income, and then on to some misleading advertising. Before long, negative news is no longer disclosed to shareholders, and we are well on the way to massive fraud. 

The same concept is true when it comes to all forms of wrongdoing. Even the final solution took almost ten years to develop after the rise of the Third Reich. The most evil of people will perpetrate wicked acts only if they think they can get away with them. Had the world not ceded Czechoslovakia to Hitler, yemach shmo, we may not have had “peace in our times”, but we might have had ”peace for much time”, with millions of lives saved.

When evil is not nipped in the bud, it invariably grows like a malignant tumour throughout society. “Do not twist justice, and do not give special consideration to anyone; do not take bribes, since bribery makes the wise blind and perverts the words of the righteous” (Devarim 16:19). So begins this week's parsha, warning us that our justice system must be impartial, fair, and above nepotism. There can be one goal and one goal only: “justice, justice you shall pursue” (Devarim 18:30). Dereliction of these duties is a serious sin indeed; serious but not, apparently, life threatening. However, left unchecked, the impact can be devastating. 

“If a corpse is found fallen in the field in the land that G-d, your Lord, is giving you to occupy, and it is not known who the murderer is...”. Unsolved murder forms the end story of our parsha. This is no coincidence. The division of the Torah into parshiot hashavua was done at the discretion of our Sages who used thematic considerations to determine our weekly readings, including, as in any good book, linking the beginning and end of the parsha. Our sages are subtly teaching that a corrupt justice system can and often will lead to murder. Once justice is neglected, lawlessness in all its terrible manifestations reigns. The settling of old scores, looting, theft, rape, and ultimately murder are the inevitable result.

Interestingly, the perpetrator mentioned in the Torah is unknown, making justice impossible to achieve. Rather, the rabbinic leaders of the nearest town must declare their own innocence. While it is inconceivable (we hope!) that these leaders would actually be involved in murder, their claim of bloodless hands is not sufficient. They must actually say, “No one came in our midst whom we discharged without food, and whom we did not see, and whom we left without providing an escort” (Sotah 46b). Failure to provide food to the needy, shelter to the homeless, or—worse yet—not even knowing of the needs of others makes one liable as a murderer.

Judaism has long recognized that sins of commission are part and parcel of human existence. It is for this reason that G-d granted us the gift of teshuvah. It is, however, sins of omission that so often lead to tragic results. Our Temple was destroyed because nobody stood up to say, no, we will not embarrass a guest in public (see Gittin 56a). Whatever sin it was that Moshe Rabbeinu may have committed (and it is by no means clear what it was), his punishment was not a result of what he did, but of what he did not do. “Because you did not sanctify Me among the Israelites” (Devarim 32:52).

Making a mistake, even a serious one, is pardonable; doing nothing is not. Our leaders must create a climate where passive indifference is not tolerated, where the needs of all, especially the underclass, are tended to.

We live in a society in which we are taught to mind our own business. While invasion of privacy is a serious offence in Jewish law, we must not allow respect for privacy to justify being uninvolved and apathetic. We must fight for justice if need be; we must be willing to stand up to do what's right, whether or not it is politically correct. Woe unto us if we cannot say, “no one came in our midst whom we discharged without food, and whom we did not see, and whom we left without providing an escort”.