OzTorah. Torah reading: Shoftim


Hand washing station at the Western Wall.

“I’m fed up. I abdicate. I wash my hands of the matter. I’ve had enough. Don’t talk to me about it again.”

A common reaction to a long-standing problem:

“You sort it out: leave me alone”.

The key phrase is

“I wash my hands”. 

Psalm 26:6 says,

“I wash my hands in innocence, and walk around Your altar”.

Ex. 30:19 tells the priests to wash their hands before coming to the altar: the source of our practice of hand-washing before eating bread. The problem comes when a person’s hands have been soiled by sin (Isa. 1:15), which is why the Psalmist can say he washed his hands “in innocence”.

This week’s sidra presents us with the situation of the elders who see the result of bloodshed and say,

“Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it!” (Deut.  21:7-8).

The rabbis ask,

“Who would have suspected the elders of shedding blood? Why did they need to declare their innocence?”

Their answer is,

“But if anything goes wrong whilst the elders are in charge, they haven’t done their job properly!”

These days there are two possibilities: the leaders have actually committed a wrong because they were corrupt and self-serving (in which case, as we have seen in Israel, they deserve to be arraigned and imprisoned), or there have been moral deficiencies in the community (which good leaders would have recognised and eradicated).

A good leader needs “clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:4).


The famous verse, “tzedek tzedek tir’dof”, comes at the beginning of this week’s portion (Deut. 16:20).

The translation of “tzedek” is usually “justice”, so the verse reads, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue”. But the Targum has a different view. Instead of “tzedek”, it says “kushta”, “truth”: “Truth, truth shall you pursue”.

The Netinah LaGer (Nathan Marcus Adler), in commenting on the Targum, makes no distinction between justice and truth, apparently approximating one ethical concept to the other.

The prophet Zechariah, however, like a number of other writers, does make a distinction. In a verse (8:16) quoted in Pir’kei Avot 1:18, Zechariah says,

“Judge with truth, justice and peace”.

Truth indicates trying to get to the true facts:

“What really happened?”

Justice looks at motives:

“Why did each person act as they did?”

Peace is the interests of society:

“What verdict is best in all the circumstances?”

All three are immensely difficult to achieve, which is why the verse in Parashat Shof’tim tells us to pursue them (“tir’dof”) even if in the end they prove elusive.

By way of postscript let me add that I taught Jewish law for many years at university and tried to impress on my students that there is never likely to be an open-and-shut case in which all they need to do is to look up a law textbook and quote a precise dictum. No jurist can ever be certain they have found the 100% right answer to anything, but they are never exempt from trying.


When people first began to talk about hole-in-the-heart babies there were some Bible readers who almost suspected that the terminology was a play on words derived from the portion we read this week with its command, “Tamim tih’yeh”, “Be whole-hearted with God” (Deut. 18:13).

Actually, there really is no connection apart from the similar sound. The Hebrew “tamim”, though hard to translate, means “complete”, the opposite of having a hole.

The person who is whole-hearted with God is holistic, blessed with inner balance and harmony. Their lives are not fragmented. They are not pulled in two directions at once, both to God and to Baal. They do not praise God and blaspheme against His Name at the same time. They may have their problematical moments of doubt about the Almighty and the way He runs the universe, but this does not mean that even temporarily they turn away from Him. They say, “God, You sometimes make it very difficult for me”.

Nonetheless nothing causes them to turn against Him. They remain in the belief loop. They try to grapple with the difficult moments. Even when it is hardest they still say, “Yitgaddal v’yitkaddash sh’mei rabba”. As someone put it, not even a moment of crisis will stop them davening Minchah.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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