Authority. In the free and democratic Western world in which we live, most of us eschew it. Nobody is going to tell us what to do. This non deference to authority is clearly one of the reasons many people have difficulties accepting the "demands" of traditional Judaism. They incorrectly perceive that their freedom and choices will be unduly limited. No doubt Judaism does place a great deal of importance on respect for authority and at times deference towards it. The Torah in Parshat Shoftim outlines different categories of authority from judicial, political and spiritual within the Jewish weltanschaung. All, of course, were subservient to the will of G-d as expressed in the Torah. It is for this reason that the King - a position that was and is often misused - was commanded to have a Sefer Torah "with him at all times in order to be in awe of G-d his Lord" (17:19). People in power need constant reminders that they are there to serve the people and not the other way around. In fact according to many commentaries, Judaism does not demand that we appoint a King, but rather allows it as a concession to the Jewish people and their desire to "appoint a King, just like all the nations around us" (17:14). It is for this reason that Shmuel Hanavi was angry with the Jewish people for requesting a King (see Samuel 1, chapter 8).
Authority properly implemented must be respected. The death penalty was mandated for a Mored bemalchut - one who defies the authority of the King, or for one who openly encouraged people to flaunt and defy the rulings of the "Supreme court". One was allowed to continue to disagree intellectually with the ruling but could not instruct others to ignore it.
The authority of the court or the King transcended the individuals occupying such positions. It is for this reason that Jewish law forbids a King or high priest from testifying in a court of law. Being subject to examination and cross examination would unjustly lower the status of their respective offices.
With authority comes increased responsibility. At the end of the parsha the Torah describes a seemingly strange ritual, that of the eglah arufah (beheaded heifer). We are told that if a body is found out in a field the elders and judges from the nearest city are to take a heifer, break its neck, wash their hands and recite the following: "Our hands have not shed this blood neither have our eyes witnessed it. Forgive your people whom you G-d have liberated. Do not allow the guilt for innocent blood to remain with your people Israel" (21:7-8). The authorities must declare they did not murder this person! Rashi quoting the Talmud's astonishment at such a possibility explains that while surely no member of the Sanhedrin would murder they must proclaim that "no-one came within our jurisdiction whom we discharged without food and whom we did not see and whom we left without providing him an escort." If social conditions are such that a murder can take place then the leaders are to be held accountable. If somebody can come to town and nobody extends an invitation, no-one is really concerned about the stranger then societal leaders need atonement. Passive sinning is sinning and leads to murder.
The Midrash using a play on the word Agalot (wagons) that Joseph sent to Yaacov to escort him to Egypt sees a connection between those agalot and the eglah arufah . The rabbis comment that when Yaacov sent Yosef to find his brothers they were studying the parsha of eglah arufah . What were the rabbis driving at? Yosef nearly lost his life because he went unescorted to meet his brothers. Yaacov was chastising himself for this oversight which caused him 22 years of torment and despair. Even the greatest of leaders occasionally fail to show enough concern for others. In our modern cities, lack of concern for others is endemic. Let us extend a hand to all those in need - and it is our responsibility to discover whom they are- so that, as the parsha concludes" we will have done that which is morally right in G-d's eyes". Shabbat Shalom!