Shoftim: Towards ultimate justice - the Haftarah and the Parasha

This is the period of the seven Haftarahs of consolation, irrespective of the Torah reading, but the one read this week has a deep connection to the parasha.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Clouds

Though the Haftarah on any given Shabbat usually parallels the theme of the Torah-reading, the final ten Shabbatot of the year follow a different paradigm.

The three Shabbatot of the Three Weeks, called the תְּלָת דְּפֻרְעָנוּתָא (Aramaic: “the Three of Castigation”), are all prophecies of G-d’s wrath and punishment for our sins, leading to destruction and exile. And the next seven Shabbatot, from the Shabbat after the 9th of Av until the final Shabbat of the year, the Shabbat immediately before Rosh Hashanah, are called the שֶׁבָע דְּנֶחָמָתָא (Aramaic: “the Seven of Consolation”), all taken from Isaiah, foretelling the wonderful future that awaits us at the time of the Return to Zion.

The Haftarah for Parashat Shoftim – the fourth of the שֶׁבָע דְּנֶחָמָתָא – begins with G-d’s proclamation to Zion and to the Jewish people:

“I, indeed I am He Who comforts you! Who are you to be afraid of a person who will die, and of humans who will be as grass?” (Isaiah 51:12).

In the 24 verses of the Haftarah, the prophet inspires his people with the vision of the glorious future time:

“Awake! Awake! Arise, O Jerusalem! You who have drunk from Hashem’s hand the cup of His fury, drained the dregs of the cup of venom… Thus says your Master Hashem and your G-d Who will fight for His nation: Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of venom, you will never more drain the dregs from the cup of My fury… Wake up! Wake up! Don your strength, O Zion! Don your garments of splendour, O Jerusalem, the Holy City! Because no uncircumcised or contaminated person will ever enter you again!”.

Even though this is the fourth Haftarah of the שֶׁבָע דְּנֶחָמָתָא and therefore appropriate to the time of year rather than to the Parashah, Rabbi Joseph Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1913-1946) nevertheless notes a connexion between the Parashah and the Haftarah:

“The Haftarah sets out a programme of religion – to plant heaven and establish the earth for the children of men. The Sidrah, in one of its luminous commands – ‘justice, justice shall you pursue’ (Deuteronomy 16:20) – gives the fundamental prerequisite for all human living on earth” (commentary to the beginning of the Haftarah of Shoftim).

It is, then, significant that Isaiah begins this chapter with the words, “Listen to me, pursuers of justice, seekers of Hashem: look to the rock from which you were hewn and at the hole of the pit from which you were dug” (Isaiah 51:1).

The prophet’s appellation רֹדְפֵי צֶדֶק, “pursuers of justice”, with which he introduces this vision, is a clear reference to the third verse of the parashah: צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף, “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20): these are the only two verses in the entire Tanach which contain both roots רדף (“pursue”) and צדק (“justice”).

Rabbi Hertz (commentary to Deuteronomy 16:20) expounds at length on the Jewish definition of justice, and contrasts it with classical Greek thought. For the ancient Greeks, he notes, justice “implies a harmonious arrangement of society, by which every human peg is put into its appropriate hole, so that those who perform humble functions shall be content to perform them in due subservience to their superiors. It stresses the inequalities of human nature”.

By contrast, in the Hebrew concept of justice, the equality is stressed. The Jewish concept of justice is predicated on the principle that G-d created man in His image; that in every human being there is a divine spark; and that each human life is sacred and of infinite worth.

Consequently, a human being cannot be treated as a chattel, or a thing, but must be treated as a personality; and, as a personality, every human being is the possessor of the right to life, honour, and the fruits of his labour.

It is thus seen, Rabbi Hertz summarizes, that “whereas in Greek the idea of justice was akin to harmony, in Hebrew it is akin to holiness. Isaiah (5:16) has for all time declared, ‘the holy G-d is sanctified by justice’”.

In this context, then, it is significant that when the Men of the Great Assembly composed our prayers, they incorporated this phrase from Isaiah into the third Blessing of the Amidah prayer, קְדֻשַּׁת הַשֵּׁם (Holiness of G-d’s Name), for all the services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

“You are holy and Your Name is holy, and holy ones praise You every day; and so, infuse Your awe, Hashem our G-d, into all Your creations… You are holy and Your Name is awesome, and there is no god other than You, as it is written (Isaiah 5:16): ‘Hashem, Lord of Legions, will be exalted in judgement, וְהָאֵ-ל הַקָּדוֹשׁ נִקְדַּשׁ בִּצְדָקָה and the holy G-d is sanctified by justice’. Blessed are You, Hashem, the Holy King”.

This last phrase, “the holy King”, replaces the usual formula, “the Holy G-d”, for the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. The Talmud cites Rabbah bar Chinana Saba, who quoted Rav [1]:

“The entire year, a person prays ‘the Holy G-d’…except for the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur when he prays ‘the Holy King’” (Berachot 12b). This is indeed the halakhah in practice (Rambam, Laws of Prayer 2:18; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 582:1; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 129:3).

Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Shoftim is invariably the first Shabbat in the month of Ellul [2].

That is to say, Parashat Shoftim is the Shabbat which introduces us to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Days of Judgement, the time when we confront and are confronted by G-d’s justice.

All the שֶׁבָע דְּנֶחָמָתָא, the seven Haftarot of Consolation, all taken from Isaiah, foretell the ultimate Redemption. And this Redemption is G-d’s justice: “Zion will be redeemed in justice (בְּמִשְׁפָּט), and those who return to her in righteousness (בִּצְדָקָה)” (Isaiah 1:27), as we read in the first Haftarah of Castigation (the Haftarah of Parashat Devarim).

The Targum, Rashi, the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235), and the Metzudat David (“Fortress of David”, commentary on the Prophets and Writings written by Rabbi David Altschuler and his son, Rabbi Hillel Altschuler, Galicia, 18th century) all understand this to mean that it will be in the merit of those who do justice and righteousness that the Redemption will come.

But I offer an additional insight, based very loosely on the commentary of the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michael Weiser, Volhynia, Poland, and Romania, 1809-1879) here:

The Prophet depicts the Redemption, concluding with the words, “I am Hashem, in its time I will hasten it” (Isaiah 60:22, the Haftarah for Parashat Ki Tavo in another two weeks, the 6th Haftarah of Consolation).

The Talmud notes an apparent contradiction here: “In its time I will hasten it” – if the Redemption will come “in its time”, then how can Hashem “hasten it”? And if He will indeed “hasten it”, then how can it come “in its time?”

Rabbi Alexandri cited the explanation of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi [3] for this conundrum: “If they [the Jews] merit it, then ‘I will hasten it’; if they do not merit it, then it will come ‘in its time’” (Sanhedrin 98a).

And Rabbi Alexandri continues with the explanations of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: “It is written, ‘One like a man came with the clouds of Heaven…he was given dominion and honour and kingship, and all nations, peoples, and languages served him’ (Daniel 7:13-14); and it is also written, ‘Behold your king comes to you…humble and riding on a donkey’ (Zechariah 9:9). If they [the Jews] merit it, then he will come ‘with the clouds of Heaven’; if they do not merit it, then he will come ‘humble and riding on a donkey’”.

So will the Nation of Israel merit the Redemption so that it comes hastened and in glory and majesty, or will they not merit it, so it comes in spite of them, in its pre-ordained time, lowly and in humiliation?

Both are possible, but when the Isaiah prophesies that “Zion will be redeemed in justice (בְּמִשְׁפָּט)”, he is saying that the Redemption will come because the Jews will indeed deserve it! בְּמִשְׁפָּט, “in justice” – not just in the merit of the justice that they will do, but as a matter of justice: the Children of Israel will fully earn and deserve the Redemption!

To support this interpretation, I cite the Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343), specifically his commentary to Exodus 3:21:

When G-d first appeared to Moshe at the Burning Bush, He told him of the impending redemption from Egypt, and promised: “I will place this nation’s favour in the eyes of the Egyptians, so that when you go, you will not go empty-handed” (Exodus 3:21).

G-d uses the word תֵלֵכוּן here for “when you go”, and the Ba’al ha-Turim notes that the word תֵלֵכוּן occurs only twice in the entire Tanach: in Exodus 3:21, and in the concluding verse of our Haftarah:

“Because not in haste will you go out, and not in flight תֵלֵכוּן, you will go; because before you will go Hashem, and your rear-guard will be the G-d of Israel” (Isaiah 52:12).

According to the Ba’al ha-Turim, “this is to show that the final Redemption will be like the first redemption”.

Just as we left Egypt in a blaze of glory, so too we will [have the opportunity to] leave the current exile in a blaze of glory.

It has not been an easy process thus far, certainly not in the first stages of our current Redemption: Hostility, the Shoah, wars, terrorism – our current Redemption has not been exactly the majestic process that it could be.

But the best is yet to come. This is the promise of Isaiah, this is the promise and the prophecy which our Sages placed at this juncture of the year: the consolation after the Three Weeks of mourning, and the anticipation towards Rosh Hashanah.

Our Return to Zion will be G-d’s ultimate justice.


[1] Rabbah bar Chinana Saba was a second-generation Babylonian Amora. The Talmud (Berachot 12b) records that he was a disciple of Rav, who was a first-generation Babylonian Amora, one of the greatest of all the Amora’im. Rav died in 246 C.E.


[2] Since in our fixed calendar Ellul can only begin on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, Parashat Shoftim, the first Shabbat in Ellul, can only fall on the 2nd, 4th, 6th, or 7th of Ellul. This year 5779, Rosh Chodesh Ellul fell last Shabbat and Sunday; so last Shabbat (Parashat Re’eh) was the final Shabbat in Av, and this Shabbat (Parashat Shoftim) is the first Shabbat in Ellul.

[3] Rabbi Alexandri was a 3rd-generation (4th century) Israeli Amora, a disciple of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (Berachot 59a). Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was a 1st-generation (early 3rd century) Israeli Amora. Here, as in a few other places, Rabbi Alexandri refers to his mentor as רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי רַמִּי, adding the honorific רַמִּי, approximately “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi the Great” or “the exalted”.