Shoftim – The Benefits of Judges and Police in Jewish Law

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Shoftim discusses the role of judges and police officers in Judaism. “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment. (Devarim 16:18). Rashi there says, “שפטים ושטרים JUDGES AND POLICE OFFICERS — שופטים are the judges who pronounce sentence, and שוטרים are those who chastise the people at their (the judges’) order [beating and binding the recalcitrant] with a stick and a strap until he accepts the judge’s sentence (Sanhedrin 16b and Rashi thereon; cf. Sifrei Devarim 144:6).”

The use of judges and police is the 491st mitzvah of the Torah according to the Sefer HaChinuch. The Sefer HaChinuch elaborates more on their purpose: “To appoint judges and officers: To appoint (see Sefer HaMitzvot LaRambam, Positive Mitzvos 176) judges and officers that coerce [others] to do the commandments of the Torah, bring those that are veering from the path of the truth back to it against their will, order that which is fitting to do, prevent disgusting things and enforce the fences against the transgressor – so that the commandments and the preventions of the Torah not require the belief (acceptance) of each and every person… The root of the commandment is revealed – that with this thing, we will support our religion, in that the fear of our officials and our judges will be on the face of the masses. And from their being accustomed to the good and the straight because of fear, the people will teach their natures to do justice and righteousness out of love, in their recognizing the true path. And [it is] like the Sages say, that much habit is what is behind nature – meaning to say that [just] like nature constrains a man to what it wants, so [too] does a strong habit repeat itself, like a persistent nature that constrains him to always go in the way of the habit. And in the people going in the straight paths and in faith and choosing the good, the good will cling to them and God will rejoice in His creatures.” (Click here for the complete Hebrew text of this mitzvah in the Sefer Hachinuch)

Judges and police are not here simply to enforce the law. If you look closely there is a progression that the Sefer HaChinuch is emphasizing on how to come to proper service of Hashem. This process was made for even those who are not ready to choose to accept upon themselves the Yoke of Heaven; but when the process is done one has the ability to serve Hashem in the ideal manner.
Step 1 is the judges and police enforcing the law in order to instill fear of punishment so that people will adhere to the performing of mitzvos and being careful from transgressing prohibitions.
Step 2 follows with keeping Torah and mitzvos becoming second nature.
Step 3 is serving Hashem by Keeping His Torah and Mitzvos out of love after one recognizes the true path of Hashem.

The judges and police play the initial role of making sure people get themselves into the routine of living a life of Torah. This role includes creating safeguards and possibly even physically enforcing the law. This is needed in order to make sure Torah and mitzvos become part of a Jew’s nature. Just like a person naturally breathes, sleeps, and eats, so too by habitually performing the mitzvos and adhering to the prohibitions they will eventually become second nature. However, it seems that it is not as simple as it sounds because judges and police must still be in place in order to assist and ensure it becomes second nature. We must also assume that included in enforcing the action of adhering to the law, attaining the understanding of Torah through in-depth Torah study is also required in order for this process to ideally work. That is taken for granted. Once all this happens, and one recognizes the truth of why he should perform mitzvos and gets into the routine of actually performing them, then one can truly serve Hashem out of love.

Just like a person is born to breathe, doing it naturally, loving taking deep breathes of fresh air; they can appreciate breathing in and breathing out. Or a person has natural hunger pains which tells him he should eat, which he was also born with, and as a person matures he learns to appreciate what he eats and might take steps to make sure he enjoys what he is eating. He spends time and money to eat the way he loves to eat. It all starts with an inborn nature to eat and evolves into an enjoyment and love of eating. Similarly, people have to sleep. It is impossible for a person not to sleep. Granted some people need less sleep than other, but sleeping is natural, and some people love to sleep, most people get comfortable, cozy blankets and pillows to enjoy their sleep. We see that on one level there is the way one naturally lives their lives, but one can also take it a step further and love what they naturally do.

This should also be true when it comes to Torah observance. It should come naturally to them, and once that happens one should begin to enjoy and love what they are doing. However, Hashem did not program us to automatically feel the urge to perform Torah and mitzvos as he did for us to breathe, sleep, or eat. This was done on purpose so that we would choose to do good in order to be deserving of earning reward. Therefore, out of Hashem’s understanding and mercy He gave us a mitzva to appoint judges and police in order to start us on the way to habitually perform Torah and mitzvos properly, so that it will eventually become second nature. They at least help to fulfill the first part of serving Hashem properly; then it is solely our choice to recognize and appreciate the truth in order to serve Hashem out of love, to go out there and not just perform the mitzva but to spend time, money, energy and creativity in enhancing the mitzvah to the fullest, because we love and enjoy what we are doing.

So we see from here that judges and police are the lynchpin of our service to Hashem and without them it is very hard to get into the habit of performing mitzvos and adhering to Torah prohibitions in order for them to become second nature.