Right now, BBC America is running a Star Trek marathon, all the episodes of the first two seasons, uncut, in order of air date, in honor of the television show’s 50th anniversary. I remember watching those early episodes, often while doing my geometry homework. [Geometry and Star Trek meshed quite well.] The episode that just ended, “The Menagerie,” climaxed with Mr. Spock’s court martial for hijacking the Enterprise and taking it to the forbidden planet, Talos IV. (Yes, he got off.) The current episode, “The Conscience of the King,” concerns a Shakespearean actor who may or may not be the infamous Kodos the Executioner. Only a handful of witnesses who can identify Kodos survive- for now.
Witnesses, trials, and guilt tie these episodes to this week’s Torah reading. Shoftim continues instructions for the Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. The overarching goal is presented in verse 16:20, tzedek, tzedek tirdof l’maan tichyeh – justice, justice pursue, that you may live. “Tzedek” is not merely “justice” in a strict legal sense; it is inextricably entwined with compassion. The community, not only the individual, must strive to be a just one.
And how are they to accomplish this? The first step is to set up a legal apparatus. Shoftim (judges or magistrates) v’shotrim and officers (in modern Hebrew, policemen). Difficult cases move up a level to a Levite, priest, or the current chief judge. The community must actively “sweep out evil,” an image which occurs in the text with respect to apostasy (17:17), rejecting the court’s final decision (17:12), and giving malicious false testimony (19:19). The people must not adopt other Canaanite practices like divination, necromancy, soothsaying, and so on. The people must be “wholehearted” (tamim, simple – 18:13) with the Lord. The courts must be strict, so that “others will hear and be afraid, and such evil things will not again be done in your midst. Nor must you show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” People must be treated fairly. Two witnesses are required to establish guilt. Judicial partiality and bribery are outlawed, as is moving a neighbor’s boundary markers.
Strictness does not preclude compassion. The people are assured that a prophet will arise from among them to carry the Lord’s messages. The community is commanded to support the priests and Levites with their offerings, since they are assigned no lands. If the people eventually decide to have a king, that king will have clear constraints on his power, and he must learn and obey the Law like any Israelite. Once more, we read of the cities of refuge to be designated for accidental killers.
War is to be conducted in a civilized manner, as much as war can be (though not as “civilized” as the 500-year-long, computer-waged war in the Star Trek episode, “A Taste of Armageddon,” in which battles were waged mathematically and identified casualties walked into disintegration chambers). Soldiers who have just built a house or planted a vineyard or acquired a wife and not yet enjoyed the fruits of any of these are told to go home. Soldiers who are fearful are not shot at sunrise but just sent home, so their fears don’t infect the rest of the troops. Cities are to be given a chance to sue for peace before they are besieged and food trees are to be left standing. The portion ends with the case of a dead body found out in the open whose killer is unknown. The elders of the nearest town must go through a formal ritual in which they declare the people of Israel innocent of shedding that blood.
Were these laws carried out as written? My guess, some yes, some no. But the text in this portion remains important in describing what tzedek, tzedek tirdof entails.
A few of my favorite quotes from Star Trek (the original series). See https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Star_Trek:_The_Original_Series for more.
Spock: On my planet, to rest is to rest — to cease using energy. To me, it is quite illogical to run up and down on green grass, using energy, instead of saving it.
Kirk: The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.
The Squire of Gothos
Spock: I object to you. I object to intellect without discipline. I object to power without constructive purpose.
Trelane: Oh, Mr. Spock, you do have one saving grace after all – you’re ill mannered. The human half of you, no doubt.
The Ultimate Computer
James T. Kirk: Genius doesn’t work on an assembly line basis. Did Einstein, Kazanga or Sitar of Vulcan produce new and revolutionary theories on a regular schedule? You can’t simply say, “Today I will be brilliant.”
Sweep the Floor
Your first job will be to sweep the floor.
But I’m a college student the young man replied.
In that case give me the broom – I’ll show you how.
On 1 Foot – Parshas Shoftim
Judge: Justice I shall pursue.
Defendant: Do you take bribes?
Judge: NO. I am creditable.
Defendant: Visa or Mastercard?
I didn’t enlist in the Army — I was drafted. So I wasn’t going to make life easy for anyone. During my physical, the doctor asked softly, “Can you read the letters on the wall?”
“What letters?” I answered slyly.
“Good,” said the doctor. “You passed the hearing test.”
Combat rules soldiers should know:
- Never share a foxhole with
anyone braver than you.
• Never look important; the enemy may be low on ammo.
• Never draw fire; it irritates everyone around you.
• Never forget that your weapon is made by the lowest bidder.
Golf Club Murder
Police are called to the scene of a murder to find a man standing in his living room, holding a 5-iron in his hands, looking at the lifeless body of a woman on the ground.
The detective asks him, “Sir, is that your wife?”
“Yes,” the shaken man replies.
“Did you hit her with that golf club?”
“Yes. Yes, I did,” the man stammers. He stifles a sob, drops the club and puts his hands on his head.
“How many times did you hit her?” asks the policeman.
“I don’t know,” the man answers. “Five…six…Put me down for a five.”
A judge is reprimanding the defendant in a trial: “I thought I told you I never wanted to see you in here again!”
“Your Honor,” the defendant says, “that’s what I tried to tell the police, but they wouldn’t listen.”