Our Torah reading this week begins with the commandment to appoint shoftim and shotrim. We know what shofitm do — they judge. Rambam in Hilchot Sanhedrin explains that shoftim sit in court and those with claims come before them. But just what are shotrim and what do they do? Rambam explains that shotrim have the “staff and the strap:” they are the enforcers of the judgments handed down by the courts.
As parents and teachers, we are called upon constantly to be both judges and enforcers. Neither of these jobs are particularly enjoyable: sifting through evidence (which can be hard to attain in a linear manner); getting the “truth” (or as close to it as possible); and, finally, handing down and following through on the consequences. We all want our children and our students to feel close to us. Sometimes, as the adults in their lives, it’s our job to keep our eye on the longer-term goals we have for them: do we want our kids to be happy in the moment, or learn what honesty means? Do we want them to stop complaining, or learn to delay gratification?
We are familiar with similar advice from Shlomo HaMelech, who wrote in chapter thirteen of Mishlei: choshech shivto soneh b’no; ve-ohavo shicharo musar – “One who spares the rod hates one’s child; but one who loves one’s child sometimes chastens them.” We all agree with such advice in theory, but in practice, it can become difficult.
I read a story this week of a religious mother from Indianapolis who beat her seven year-old son with a coat hanger, leaving serious welts and bruises, and used this verse as in defense of her actions. We are quick to react to such stories. We are angry and disgusted; we often feel superior to and more sophisticated than people who would behave this way. But how do we draw the line between discipline and over-indulgence?
There’s some insight later in the parasha where we learn of another crucial role for the shotrim. In chapter 20, we read of what will happen when we assemble for war and see sus va-rechev am rav mimecha – “horses and chariots and many more troops than you have.” (Gulp.) First the kohen is to approach the troops and give a speech reminding all not to be afraid since Hashem will accompany them and fight for them.
After that, though, the troops are asked if anyone has built a new house and not dedicated it; planted a vineyard and not yet eaten of its fruit; or become engaged and not yet married. Any who answers yes can return home. The soldiers are then asked one final question: if any of them are simply afraid to go to war. This is their final “get out of jail free” card. Those who cannot deal with their fear may leave. Rambam in Hilchot Melachim explains that while the kohen would ask the first three questions, it was the shotrim themselves who would ask the last one, offer this final way out, to the panicky troops.
Why give this job of asking perhaps the most sensitive question to the enforcers? Perhaps that’s to show the troops — and us, by extension — that even the enforcer must have a heart. As tough as we need to be — and we sometimes really, really need to be — we also need to be seen as caring and sensitive. That can be a challenge when a terrified soldier (or a furious child) stands before you, but such is the role of the shotrim.
May we all be granted strength to hold firm with our kids — and to do so every time with compassion.
As September 11th arrives this Sunday, it’s an appropriate time to appreciate the shotrim in our community in any way we can. We will also all join together to celebrate our school community at Cherry Lane from 11-3 at our opening PTA Family Picnic. I hope to see all of you there!