The section “shoftim veshotrim” is a description for living in the land of Israel as set down from a legal perspective. The portion refers to the establishment of the judges, the police, the enforcers, and the executioners. The commentators on this section ask the question: Does this indicate that God knew in advance what would be coming when the Israelites could enter the land of Israel; that there would be a need for judges and executioners to exist?
The Zohar has a lengthy discourse on the death penalty and states that within these prescribed laws there are four types of penalties. In other words, it was not left to the state to decide whether execution would be in the form of the electric chair or beheading, as was the case over the millennia. Rather what we learn is that there is a prescription of what death penalty one would deserve. It was left to no one but the Bible itself.
The four death penalties described in the Bible—death by spear, by hanging, by fire, and by stoning—seem primitive and cruel, which is why we study at The Kabbalah Centre, because without the Zohar, we cannot begin to understand the Bible.
Is the Bible saying that punishment could be an instrument of God, and that in a trial, if a person deserves some form of death penalty, that this is what he or she can expect; warning us to not commit crimes or else there will be an ugly method of our death? No, let me assure you that the Talmud tells us that the death penalty never happened, and that it could never happen because the judicial system being referred to here required nothing less than two witnesses; there could be no circumstantial evidence, no other forms of evidence, no fingerprints. What is needed are two witnesses who can testify that they saw the situation with their own eyes, and as two witnesses never came up with the same story, there was no death penalty.
So if the death penalty never happened, then why have this whole section in the Bible? The Zohar explains that what we are talking about are the four ways of dying; that every kind of death will fall into one of these four categories, no matter what it is. The Zohar and Rav Isaac Luria (the Ari) explain it is related to our tikkun (correction process) and that we all come back, sometimes without possibly knowing that we may have done something to have deserved the death penalty in a prior lifetime.
However, according to the Talmud, there is no way to have sentenced someone on the physical basis, and therefore it never happened. There is no way to indict and convict to death another person for a crime that was incurred. Therefore, since there is justice in the universe and nothing happens suddenly, where did this come from and why do we deserve it? Nothing takes place in this world without a prior basis of activity in some lifetime.
If a person dies in a collapsed building this means this person died by stoning, or dies in a burning building this is death by fire. If a person is stabbed to death, this is death by spear, or chokes on a piece of food and dies, this is death by hanging. It is these four types of deaths that represent every death.
What is it when arteries are blocked? What does this mean? To understand this let us look at what happens when someone is hanged. How does this individual die? By choking to death. The same thing happens in a clogged artery, which can result in a stroke or heart attack; it adds up to the one idea of choking.
Without going into all the details, to sum up, the Zohar reminds us to make every attempt to clean out our tikkun. This is why we have the portion of Shoftim in this month, the month of Elul (Virgo). With the help of Shoftim, we can cleanse ourselves before we get into a New Year at Rosh Hashanah. And by cleansing ourselves we know that our New Year will not be established on the basis of negative actions for which we are responsible, or for some negativity of a thousand years ago or a thousand lifetimes for which we may have come back.