Some Torah Portions require almost no interpretation. People should just read them again and again, and hopefully something will sink in, so that maybe our society will be guided by them, that their powerful words will come to fruition. Such are the opening verses of Parashat “Shoftim” (Judges):
“You shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)
So simple, so clear. Just governance is dependent on the gatekeepers: those who can judge the people without favoritism or bias. Those who can be critical of both the governing class and the governed, those who can place limits on authority and impose sanctions on those who overstep the bounds of law and morality. Therefore, the fundamental sin mentioned in the portion is bribery, since bribery violates the most important assumption of a just system: that all are equal in the eyes of the law, none are exempt from judgment, including the wealthy and powerful.
How sad it is, then, in Israel in 2019 that this still is not clear to all. Just this week, Israeli media reported that the new State Comptroller (recently appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu) met with the Prime Minister just four days before the Comptroller deprived the Permits Committee – an important watchdog committee – of its power and castigated its members over rulings made regarding Netanyahu’s pending corruption cases.
This committee, a part of the Comptroller’s office, is in many respects a sort of a judicial body. Although its members do not pass judgment on criminals, they absolutely are intended to be separated from the executive branch and from all political considerations, and to make determinations on weighty legal and moral issues that affect powerful figures in government.
A few months ago, Netanyahu asked this committee for permission to have his legal defense funded by his cousin, Natan Milikovsky, a wealthy tycoon from the United States. The committee repeatedly rejected this request. Just two weeks following the appointment of a new State Comptroller, Netanyahu met with him – and immediately thereafter the committee members were reprimanded for not authorizing this funding. A few members resigned in protest, and strict new limits were placed on the committee’s authority.
This incident was revealed after the new Comptroller was already quoted expressly stating that his office would be less aggressive in oversight of the authorities, would focus on “constructive criticism,” and on positive measures adopted by government agencies.
The Office of the State Comptroller and the committees under its jurisdiction do not exist to be a rubber stamp or to give gold stars for nice things that the administration does. That’s not their job. If the elected authorities do their job well, the public will re-elect them in democratic elections. But the role of the State Comptroller is to audit and critique the authorities and their decisions – to point out fundamental shortcomings, as well as procedural and ethical failings.
The Office of the State Comptroller and its committees are, as simply put in this week’s Parasha, “judges and officials for your tribes.” If they choose to act as a lapdog for the administration, rather than as a guard dog for democracy – we are inching another step closer to the abyss.
And one last thing: this Parasha gives us one of the most beautiful and inspiring injunctions that we find in the Torah, one that is quoted routinely, often without being aware of its deeper meaning and fascinating structure: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” First of all, justice must be pursued. Justice does not come by itself, but only after public political and educational activism. Second, the pursuit of justice is a condition for inheriting the promised land, and for life itself. Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land.
Let it be known to the authorities, especially as we approach another election here in Israel: if they don’t pursue justice; if they are more concerned with pursuing those who pursue justice – they will not “inherit the land”, they will lose their power, and we will not allow them to cling to authority any longer.
Yarin Raban is a teacher and a lecturer at the BINA Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv and a researcher of Jewish secularism.
The views expressed in each of BINA’s weekly Torah commentaries are the views of the author and may not necessarily reflect the views of BINA.