Shoftim means “judges” and our parashah focuses on the proper administration of justice in a biblical society. But Shoftim is always read as we begin the new month of Elul, the period of self examination before we come to Rosh Hashanah. The Torah reading also speaks about cities of refuge, where a person who accidentally committed a homicide can find refuge, so commentators have called the days of Elul, a “city of refuge in time.” We are given a chance to review our lives, and make teshuvah and turn our ways towards the good and a more righteous way of living.
What practical things do we focus on during this month of “return?” We can blow the shofar every morning, recite Psalm 27 twice daily, and begin to recite our atonement prayers. This is part of the tradition of preparing for the High Holy Days.
The cities of refuge were established as a form of sanctuary for one who has killed another accidentally. The purpose was to protect the killer from one who would take the law into this own hands and seek vengeance. In this city the accused would remain until the death of the high priest, presumably because the priest’s death was understood as expiation for all the unrequited deaths that had occurred during his rule as high priest. Basically the person who committed this crime was condemned to perpetual exile. What was this like in the ancient world? How would he/she converse with his family? How would such a prisoner go about making “repentance” in his own life? Perhaps in our present world, we are given Elul as a month to find refuge from the push and pull of daily pressures, and turn our focus towards a more spiritual way of living. Basically it’s time for us to “clean up our act!”