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The book of Shoftim traces the history of the Jews in Israel from the death of Yehoshua (2516 – which was 1244 BCE) until 2830 (930 BCE). The book goes through two parallel tracks: the first track details what happened to the nation, and the second track describs each generation’s leader – its judge (i.e. Gideon, Samson, Debra, etc).

Just a quick glance at the book will show the reader the regular cycle of the period’s history:

  1. The people slip into idol worship.
  2. G-d becomes “angry” and removes His close protection and the Philistines or Midionites (the bullies next door) are suddenly threatening.
  3. The people cry out to G-d, who sends a judge to

    • bring the people back to the proper Divine service
    • push the enemy back out of Jewish territory

(for an overview of the Judges from the words of the book itself, see Shoftim, chapter 2; 11 – 23).

That’s the first impression…and it’s not necessarily wrong. In fact, if you took a good, long look at the whole 3500-year history of the Jews you might find a very similar pattern. Traditional Judaism believes that the hand of G-d is active in the affairs of this world and that He cares about the actions of individual human beings. If we are righteous (by doing what G-d wants), then, by and large, G-d will deal with us accordingly. Therefore, it’s only natural that the fortunes of Israel in this world should be bound to its spiritual life. There are, of course, exceptions – as there are to any good rule but the rule is strong enough just the same.

What was a judge? He (or in the case of Debra: she) was more than just someone who sat on a bench all day handing out traffic fines. A judge was the biggest political, (often) religious, moral leader of his generation. Perhaps most importantly, most of them were links in the chain of our oral tradition.

For a good look at the institution of judges (shoftim), see the book “Samson’s Struggle,” by Rabbi Gershon Weiss (Kol HaYeshiva Publications).