This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, or Magistrates, concerns itself with the establishment of courts and judicial procedures. Laid out in this portion are the structures that will help B’nai Yisroel (the Children of Israel) as they move from functioning as a tribal society to one much vaster. They are in need of a more sophisticated system to manage their increasingly complex society.
This is the portion that demands the testimony of two or more witnesses in a criminal case. Shoftim allows for the people to choose their own king with God’s caveat that they set over themselves one of their own, not a foreigner nor one who is not a kinsman. In addition to laying out the rules for warfare, Shoftim gives us the imperative engraved upon the Jewish psyche, and upon the very facades of many of our country’s courthouses: Tzedek tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice. Thou shalt pursue it. Not just be a just society, but pursue justice like one in thirst pursues water.
In a deeper sense, God and His People are taking leave of one another. Their forty-year journey is drawing to a close. It has been a journey filled with signs and wonders, a trek peppered with miracles and messengers. The relationship between God and the Children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob-who-became-Israel, has been by turns loving and confrontational, one of retribution and forgiveness; it has been fraught with petulant distance and comforting rapprochement.
Not only is Moses’ death on the horizon but God, too is preparing for a leave-taking. Soon the journey will be complete. Although in a few short weeks we will begin the story anew with Bereshit, the relationship between God and His Chosen People is about to move into a new dimension forever. Without Moses as interlocutor, God’s presence will be less tangible. No longer will He appear as the pillar of smoke by day and the column of fire by night that guided leagues of former Egyptian slaves through the crucible to maturity.
So what does God do? He recaps his teachings. Much of this summer’s readings have been a reiteration of all that came before. The Ten Commandments are repeated. So are the laws of Kashrut. Rituals for purification are repeated as are the parameters of warfare. Where will the people be without God’s presence as they have known it? Will this stiff-necked people forget His teachings? Will they forget Him?
A familiar parable tells us about a young child playing hide and seek. He hid himself so well that his friends gave up trying to look for him. The child eventually comes out of his hiding place and wails to his father that his friends didn’t care enough about him to keep looking for him. The father, not one to miss an opportunity, likened his son’s feeling to God’s even greater chagrin that His children often forget to look for Him.
But God must still let go. The plan called for forty years of wandering, forty years to anneal a new spirit and consciousness within His people. Ready or not they have been given all they need to know how to create a just and holy society. Now it is up to them. How can God know that these former slaves have learned His lessons unless He sets them free?
Letting go is a gargantuan task and yet, I’d like to posit that God has never let go, not really. What are His laws but holy links that can bind us to Him if only we manifest them in our lives? The relationship will not wither if we remember to water it with our commitment to do and to listen.
In ten days we take our firstborn to college. These eighteen years have been a journey layered with joy and challenge, constant delight and momentary despair. It has been the most sacred task of our lives. And yet, like God we have to let go. We have to trust that the lessons of a lifetime have taken root and in our physical absence they will nevertheless flower. God had to allow His children venture forth on their own to reach their potential and so too must all parents. B’nai Yisroel have only to follow God’s teachings to experience Him once again.
Being a father, being a mother is one parting after another. Whether it’s saying, “I’ll be back soon” at the nursery schoor door or “Pick you up in a month” at camp, whether say a temporary farewell in the dorm driveway or relinquishing a child to matrimony at the chuppah, life is a series of endless leavetakings, endless reworkings of the parent/child relationship.
Shoftim instructs us that relationships never end but merely transform themselves. The more we teach one another, the more we can learn from one another, the stronger the bonds between us.
After forty years God left the Children of Israel to their own devices. Yet 3400 years after the Exodus God’s presence, though often hard to fathom, can still be found by those who seek Him. Like God we, too, must ultimately leave our children to their own devices. We muster the strength to do this knowing that we are always there if they but seek our teachings.