Real society vs. utopia

Real society vs. utopia

Shoftim | Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

If you wanted to know about the perfect society, whom would you consult? A politician? A professor? A utopian philosopher?

Would you ask an entomologist, a scientist who studies insects? The Bible suggests we consult such people if we want to learn about the ideal society. In fact, King Solomon suggests we observe insect life:

“Lazy bones, go to the ant;
Study its ways and learn.
Without leaders, officers, or rulers,
It lays up its stores during the summer,
Gathers in its food at the harvest.” (Proverbs 6:6-8)


In antiquity, men observed the remarkable efficiency of colonies of ants. Even today, we are impressed by the complex tasks that ant colonies perform without instructions, without training, and, above all, without leaders.

The midrash in Shoftim is astonished by the lesson we can learn from these insects: “Behold the ethical behavior of the ants as it avoids theft,” said Rabbi Simon ben Chalafta. “I once observed an ant who dropped a kernel of wheat, which then rolled down the ant hill. All the ants came and sniffed it. No ant dared take it, until the one who dropped it came and took it for herself. Behold the wisdom of the ant, which is to be praised, for it did not receive instruction from any other creature, and has neither judges nor policeman.” (Deuteronomy Rabba, Shoftim, 3.)

I am fascinated by the possibility that King Solomon and Rabbi Simon ben Chalafta ask us to observe what a perfect society might look like. It would be a society with no leadership hierarchy; one in which all are truly equal and everyone contributes diligently and industriously and would not dream of taking something that belonged to someone else.

In short, it would be an efficient, ethical society with no need for judges or policemen.

This week’s portion describes a society far from that ideal, beginning with the command to “appoint magistrates and officials…who shall govern the people and do justice.”

So is it the ideal society that is being described herein, or do the systems elaborated upon in this parsha reflect the Torah’s concessions to human frailty? Perhaps the parsha responds to the tragic fact that real societies do not resemble the utopian idea.

The difference between the harmony characteristic of ant colonies versus human groups is the difference between creatures guided by instinct versus humans blessed by free will. The very freedom that humans enjoy compels us to be on guard against evil in all its forms.

King Solomon’s call to witness the ants is really his invitation to envision an ideal society, but one which is nearly impossible to achieve.

Until that ideal is achieved, we are well advised to study all that the Torah’s teachings on safeguards against human faults. Anarchy must be avoided, but utopia is not realistic. The Torah is designed to help us deal with the realities of existence. Nevertheless, the Torah holds open the possibility that a utopia might one day emerge. After all, if the ants can achieve an efficient, ethical society, why can’t we?

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