Where are the Orphans, Widows and Strangers?
On the Audible Silence in Parashat Shoftim
Parashat Shoftim describes the political structures for the Jewish nation, to be implemented once they enter their land. This is a system characterized by almost complete freedom, of the sort where interference occurs only in the case of a problem. To the observer, this would appear to be an idyllic description; however, anyone familiar with the Torah and its ways will immediately note the striking absence of socially weak and weakened personae who, surprisingly, remain wholly unmentioned throughout the course of the parashah. There are no orphans or widows, no poor or strangers, or any of those who require redemption. What is the role of this lack, specifically in the context of such a broad description of a social and political system
We will survey some of the administrative constructs addressed in order to consider those who are and are not mentioned in the parashah.
The court, the beit din system Devarim 17:8
If a matter eludes you in judgment, between blood and blood, between judgment and judgment, or between lesion and lesion, words of dispute in your cities, then you shall rise and go up to the place YHVH, your God, chooses.
This verse addresses a situation in which knowledge necessary in order to arrive at a judgement is missing. The beit din system is described through the description of this case:
And you shall come to the Levitic Kohanim and to the judge who will be in those days, and you shall inquire, and they will tell you the words of judgment. And you shall do according to the word they tell you, from the place God will choose, and you shall observe to do according to all they instruct you. You shall not sway from what they say left or right.
In this system, the deciding voice in the case of lack of clarity is that of the Kohanim, the Levites, and the judges present in the chosen place. The verses do not deal with those who are unable to reach this place because of distance, difficulties on the way, domestic needs or other reasons. Similarly, there is no mention of justice, righteousness, or charity, tzedakah, which are usually presented as falling under the purview of the court, the beit din. There is however discussion of reinforcing the Torah’s stance:
According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or left.
Another leadership type mentioned in the parashah is the king. His coronation stems from the Jewish nation’s desire:
When you come to the land YHVH, your God, is giving you, and you possess it and live therein, and you say, “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me.”
As we may expect from human leadership subservient to the sovereignty of God, malkhut shamayim, limitations are set in the description.
You shall set a king over you, one whom YHVH, your God, chooses; from among your brothers, you shall set a king over yourself; you shall not appoint a foreigner over yourself, one who is not your brother. Only, he may not acquire many horses for himself, so that he will not bring the people back to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, for God said to you,
“You shall not return that way anymore. And he shall not take many wives for himself, and his heart must not turn away, and he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself. And it will be, when he sits upon his royal throne, that he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah on a scroll from [that Torah which is] before the Levitic Kohanim.
There is no firm delineation of the king’s responsibilities towards his people in general, or toward the weak among them in particular. Once again, the central concern of the chapter lies in reinforcing the Torah both inward and outwardly:
From among your brothers, you shall set a king over yourself; you shall not appoint a foreigner over yourself, one who is not your brother…And it will be, when he sits upon his royal throne, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law, torah on a scroll….and so that he will not turn away from the commandment, either to the right or to the left.
The parashah describes the religious leadership of the prophet and the Kohanim as well. As with the king, the prophet too is described as an appointment stemming from The Jewish nation’s request:
According to all that you asked of YHVH, your God, in Horev, on the day of the assembly, saying, “Let me not continue to hear the voice of YHVH, my God, and let me no longer see this great fire, so that I will not die.” And God said to me, “They have done well in what they have spoken. I will set up a prophet for them from among their brothers like you, and I will put My words into his mouth, and he will speak to them all that I command him.”
The description of the prophet does not focus on his areas of responsibility as a leader, but rather on the obligation to heed him, and the prohibition warning him not to go beyond the word of God. Once again, the concern lies in reinforcement and preservation of boundaries:
I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that speaks in my name. 20And a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.
Additionally, there are descriptions of the Kohanim and Levites. These too seem to be lacking something. There is no discussion at all of the Kohanim or Levites tasks; nor are they mentioned alongside other people who are needy or dependent, as occurs more than once in other places, such as early on in Devarim: “And the Levite because he has no portion or inheritance with you and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are in your cities, will come and eat and be satisfied; so that YHVH, your God, will bless you in all the work of your hand that you will do” (Devarim 14:29).
On the contrary, the Kohanim and the Levites are mentioned here within the framework of the Jewish nation’s obligations to them:
“And this shall be the kohanim’s due from the people, from those who perform a slaughter, be it an ox or a sheep, they shall give the kohen the foreleg, the jaws, and the maw.”
This unusual difference, within the context in which the Levites are presented, demands an explanation and is perhaps a key to the message emerging from within the verses, as we will see further on.
Judges and law enforcement officers
As with the Levite, one of the more grating examples of the absence of the stranger, the orphan or the widow and what they represent within the social system as a whole, appears in the context of bribery. The parashah opens with a description of the organization of the administrative, judiciary and executive bodies:
You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that YHVH, your God, is giving you… and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment.
The verses specifically warn against accepting bribes: “You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe” (Devarim 16:19).
Nonetheless, in many other places in the Torah, the warning to avoid bribery is accompanied by drawing attention to the weak and weakened in society. Thus, for example, in Exodus (Shemot):
You shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe will blind the clear sighted and corrupt words that are right. And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The same occurs in other places in the text in which refusing bribes is defined as a godly attribute associated with paying attention to the weak and the weakened:
For the YHVH, your God, is God of gods and the Lord of the lords, the great mighty and awesome God, Who will show no favor, nor will He take a bribe. He executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and He loves the stranger, to give him bread and clothing.
Our parashah, however, hints at another context for the warning:
You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land YHVH, your God, is giving you.
According to the verses in the parashah, accepting bribery will harm you, by warping your view of the world and blinding you to justice. There is a demand here to seek justice-however there is no discussion of justice as a broader, social issue, just as there is no discussion of the repercussions for others inherent in one accepting bribes.
Absence as a warning
How are we to understand the absence of the stranger, the orphan and the widow from the description of the king’s and the judge’s realms of responsibility and from the descriptions of the Kohanim and the Levites? I would argue that the absences cry out from within the verses, seeking to draw our attention to those who are missing, thus leading us to notice that something in the description is incomplete. The administrative system is imperfect as long as it ignores those whose life circumstances have weakened them.
The places of the stranger, the orphan and the widow, the places of the poor and those in need of salvation, are taken up by a series of warnings. The chapter is full of warnings not to stray left or right from the Torah; the beit din system is described as a guardian of the borders rather than an institution which cares for those who are transparent in society and seeks justice; the king is to write Torah and keep it but there are no reminders of his broad responsibility towards those people over whom he rules, and so forth.
The absence of weakened members of society, alongside the persistent cautions regarding the need to stay on the path, are positioned as warning signs: when a society’s focus is on comparisons with the exterior and on fortifying borders, it is liable to replace concern for charity and justice, raising the danger of inner blindness which itself may lead off the path of righteousness.