Torah Readings for Saturday, August 18, 2018
16:18-21-9 Devarim (Deuteronomy)
Shoftim is the fifth sedrah in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy). It takes its name from the first word in the first sentence of the sedrah. “Judges (Shoftim) and officers shall you appoint in all your cities…” The cascade of commandments that began last week continues as we find an additional forty-one in this week’s sedrah (see Themes below). For some modern readers, there is a real challenge in terms of harmonizing much of the law presented here with some uniquely American concepts of governance and jurisprudence. What we think of as religious and civil laws are part of the same fabric since the goal is to create and reinforce the practices of a Just Society, which is, by definition, a society that follows “the Lord our God” and obeys His laws. Once again, different commentators provide different groupings for the commandments presented. While this sedrah is thick with laws, some of which may seem archaic or quaint, the important thing is to step back and see the whole picture. We live in a society where people tell lawyer jokes, where justices leave defendants on death row even though their lawyers literally slept through the trial and where at the same time large corporations and their leaders escape punishment and career criminals kill witnesses with impunity. This sedrah provides modern man with a “Mosaic mosaic” of steps to ensure a just society. More importantly, it reminds that justice and righteousness are synonymous. This sedrah is living proof that the Torah has survived, in part, because it speaks to the “human condition.”
The Just Society (16:18-17:1)
The sedrah opens with a call to appoint men of high character as “judges and officers” so that the people will be governed in a just manner. “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land that the Lord your God is giving you (). The Hebrew word is “Tzedek” and it is translated by some as “righteousness.” In other words a just society is a righteous society. And as we read the next couple of versus we are reminded that a just society would not allow for idolatry (-21) or for sacrifices that would show disrespect to the Lord (17:1).
The Leadership System
The sedrah defines four different groups of leaders, each with a different set of rights and responsibilities. From our point of view, it looks like a system of separation of powers governed by a basic organic law. In this sense, it does have some elements in common with American political theory and practices. The list would include:
· Judicial officers and local agents (16:16-16:20);
· Kings (17:14-17:20);
· Priests and Levites (18:1-9);
· Prophets (18:9-22).
Each leader is chosen in a different manner. Each plays a different role. Each is vital to the well-being of the nation. In looking at the role of the Prophet and False Prophet, you might want to compare what is in Shoftim with what we read in Re’ay last week. The ultimate role of the prophet, the man who spoke out against iniquity and injustice evolved over time. However, as early as the days of King David, we see the prophet Nathan holding the monarch to account for violating the law. The role of the king will become an issue in the last days of the Samuel. The proper behavior of kings will become even more of an issue under the reign of Solomon, the last ruler over the United Kingdom. (See Themes below for more.)
As indicated in -20, those who are to be appointed judicial officers must be wise, intelligent and God-fearing. They may not take bribes or accept favors. They must pursue justice. “They may not judge any case in which they have prior knowledge or in which they have a connection to anyone involved.” (Table Talk by Moshe Pinchas Weisblum). The judicial system exists to guarantee a righteous society, the only kind of society that will ensure the Israelites an on-going existence in the Promised Land. The sedrah also creates an appellate court (17:8-13) that will have the final word in settling disputes. In a series of verses dealing with idol worshippers (17:2-7) we find rules that apply to witnesses, the conducting of investigations and capital punishment. Further on (-21) we find more rules dealing with the role and treatment of witnesses. The Cities of Refuge (19:1-13), a topic covered earlier in the Torah, are mentioned once more. These passages provide further insight into the different gradations for taking a human life and how to deal with them. Finally, the rules for dealing with the Unsolved Murder (21:1-9) complete the grouping on the Judicial System. No case should be allowed to molder in the Unsolved File, as happens in our system. Matters must be brought to closure. The ceremony described might have been seen as a public affirmation that the search for the guilty has been thorough, even if it has proven fruitless. Does this mean that the guilty can escape? Not under the concept of Jewish justice since God is the ultimate Judge and we all must face the ultimate judgment. Note how neatly this fits with the motif of the Days of Awe, the event on the calendar towards which we are now moving.
Rules of Warfare (20:1-20:20)
Why place rules about war in a sedrah that deals with the structure of government and justice and that places a special emphasis on limiting the use of the death penalty? Making war was (and is) a major governmental function. Until the Moshiach comes, it is a necessary, if ugly, fact of life. However, even though warfare means death and destruction, a society based on justice will attempt to limit the impact of combat and avoid sinking into barbarism. That is why, for example, you offer to make peace (-11) and you do not destroy the fruit trees (-20). The selection process for the army (20:1-20) stands in sharp contrast to the forced levees used by other societies. It also stands in contrast to the implication of the military head counts taken in early sections of the Torah. The reason for military victory (20:4) is echoed in the theme of the Chanukah story. The actual methods for engaging in war and combat (20:14-19) provide an interesting template with which to compare the actual behavior of Jewish armies as our history unfolds.
491. The commandment to appoint judges and officers in every Israelite community ().
492. The prohibition against planting trees in the sanctuary ().
493. The prohibition against erecting an idolatrous pillar in the sanctuary ().
494. The prohibition against offering as a sacrifice an animal with a blemish (17:1).
495. The obligation to listen to the religious leadership and high court on one’s time (17:8-11).
496. The prohibition against disobeying their rulings (17:8-11).
497. The permission, though not obligation, to anoint a king (17:14-15).
498. A King should be a born Israelite (17:15-20).
499. A king should not acquire an unduly large number of horses (17:15-20).
500. A king should not settle Israelites in the land of Egypt (17:15-20).
501. A king should not take a large number of wives (17:15-20).
502. A king should not amass for himself great wealth (17:15-20).
503. A king should write himself a Torah scroll upon his elevation to the kingship (17:15-20).
504. The prohibition against the tribe of Levi having tribal territory within Israel (18:1-2).
505. The prohibition against the tribe of Levi being given any share of the booty when the land is conquered by the Israelites (18:1-2).
506. The obligation to give to the priests the shoulder, the cheeks and the stomach of an offering (18:3-4).
507. The obligation to give to the priests an offering called Terumah from one’s produce (18:3-4).
508. The obligation to give to the priests the first shearing of one’s sheep (18:3-4).
509. The commandment that the priests and Levites should serve together at the sanctuary in watches (18:6-8).
510. The prohibition against practicing divination (18:9-11).
511. The prohibition against practicing sorcery (18:9-11).
512. The prohibition against casting spells (18:9-11).
513. The prohibition against consulting a medium (18:9-11).
514. The prohibition against consulting a wizard (18:9-11).
515. The prohibition against making inquiries of the dead (18:9-11).
516. The commandment to heed a truthful prophet of God (18:15).
517. The prohibition against prophesying falsely in God’s name (18:20).
518. The prohibition against prophesying in the names of idols (18:20).
519. The prohibition against fearing a false prophet (18:22).
520. The commandment to specify cities of refuge for inadvertent manslayers (19:2-3, 9).
521. The prohibition against having pity for pitiless murderers (19:11-13).
522. The prohibition against altering a boundary between one’s property and that of one’s neighbor’s (19:14).
523. The prohibition against convicting a criminal on the basis of a single witness’ testimony; a minimum of two witnesses is required (19:15).
524. The commandment to inflict on perjuring witnesses the punishment that the victim of the perjury would have suffered (19:18-19).
525. The prohibition against the Israelites’ quailing in fear before their enemies and fleeing, for they should know that God is in their midst (20:1).
526. The commandment to anoint a priest to speak to, and otherwise spiritually guide, the troops during wartime (20:2).
527. The specification of permitted exemptions from army service (20:5-9).
528. The commandment to offer peace to a town before attacking it (20:10).
529. The prohibition of destroying fruit-bearing trees when besieging a city (20:19).
530. The commandment delineating the responsibility of a city’s leaders for a murder committed in its vicinity (21:1-8).
531. The prohibition against plowing or sowing in the wadi where the heifer was slaughtered (21:4).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (with additional editing by this author.)
Judges and Officers
There is more than one Hebrew word for judge. There is Shofet, the plural of which is Shoftim, the name for this week’s sedrah. In Israel today, judges or anybody else who has to render a decision, including soccer referees, are called Shoftim. Another term for a judge is Dayan. But this term refers to a judge in a religious court called a Bet Din and the judge would be a Rabbi. The Torah differentiates between Judges and Officers because Judges render decisions while Officers carry them out. Both must be of the highest moral character, never acting unfairly, never showing partiality and never taking a bribe.
Tzedek, Tzedek, Tear-doaf
Tzedek is variously translated as justice or as righteousness. So the verse either reads, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” or “Righteousness, righteousness, shall your pursue.” The problem here is with the English translation, not the Hebrew. In Hebrew there is only one word, which means that justice and righteousness are one and the same thing. After all Tzedek is Justice and a Tzadik is a Righteous Person - in Hebrew, the same letters but different vowels. Regardless of translation, why repeat the term? According to some, the repetition is a reminder that in seeking justice we must use just means. In other words, the ends do not justify the means. In Judaism, breaking the law to obey the law is a contradiction in terms and self-defeating. Often, we overlook the third word in this famous maxim - “Tear-doff” or “You shall pursue.” The Jewish concept of justice is not passive. Bare minimums will not due. In some legal systems, you can walk by a person in a dangerous situation and be held harmless if you do not act to help. In Judaism, you are supposed to help those in harm’s way. In some legal systems, you only have to answer the questions asked. You do not have to volunteer information. In Judaism, you are expected to voluntarily provide all information that you have about an incident. In Judaism, a trial is a search for the whole truth, not a game intended to hide, color or shade the truth. In the end, God is the ultimate Judge. So anybody who “beats” the temporal legal system will still have to face Justice in the Heavenly Courts.
The prohibition against moving boundary stones () has always been one of my favorites. I figured that no matter what else, this was one commandment against which I had not transgressed. But this is one of those cases where I have found how the Oral Law has broadened the concept stated in the Written Law. “Hasagat G’vul” (the moving of landmarks) has been expanded to include any business practice designed to put a competitor out of business (See Table Talk). In modern terms, predatory pricing practices are a violation of Jewish law. This concept could be interpreted to deal with what we call theft of intellectual property as well. For those who think the Torah is some musty document, consider that it had an answer about downloading music from the Internet long before there was electricity let alone computers and modems. The placement of this law seems a little puzzling. It follows a group of commandments concerning how to deal with one who has taken a life. What is the relationship between killing and moving boundary markers? Rabbi Blesofsky in Iowa City provides one interesting answer. While it may be permissible to take a life under certain circumstances, it is never permissible to take away that person’s inheritance. From this we could expand on the importance of remembering the departed and ensuring that nobody’s name is ever “blotted out.” It is a stretch, but then that is what makes some of this interesting.
What Goes Around, Comes Around
A poor widow earned her livelihood from the lease which she held on an inn until a newcomer to the village offered the local squire a higher fee and displaced her. The woman went to the court presided over by Reb Shalom of Belz and charged the new leaseholder with “Hasagat G’vul,” following a business practice designed to take away her means of earning a living. Reb Shalom refused to hear the case and sent the widow away without explanation. When a local Chassid heard of this, he could not imagine why a man of Reb Shalom’s reputation would have behaved in such manner. Surely, he could not have been impressed by the wealth of the defendant in the case. As it says in Shoftim, “You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality…” The Chassid confronted Reb Shalom who responded as follows. Many years ago, the grandfather of the new leaseholder of the inn held the lease on this very same inn until the father of this widow’s late husband offered the local squire a higher fee and displaced him. Once the old man lost the inn he was left penniless and forced to leave the area. Years passed and nobody remembered the old man, his family or their connection with the inn. But as it says in Psalms, “the steps of man are ordered by God.” In what may be seen as some act of divine providence, the grandson of the original innkeeper prospered, made his way back to the original village and made an offer to lease the very same inn that had belonged to his grandfather. How would it be proper to invoke the concept of “Hasagat G’vul,” to take from him that which had been taken from his forbearers by one who had followed the very same practice? (Based on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin. The tale begs the question of why the widow, who had done nothing wrong should suffer. And we are reminded over and over again that God judges us by how we treat the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst. So now you have something to chew on during Shabbat Kiddush besides Challah and Cholent.)
“Upon the testimony of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death…” (17:6). Do you need two witnesses or do you need three witnesses? You have to have at least two witnesses. This command has given rise to the requirement that all contracts including the Ketubah, must be signed in the presence of two witnesses. But if there are three witnesses, and by inference, more than three witnesses, the court must hear from all of them before passing judgment. In Makkot, a tractate of the Mishnah we are told the witnesses, regardless of their number, are to be treated as a unit. If even one of them is found to have given false testimony, then all of the testimony is disqualified. On the other hand, if you had a group of witnesses and one of them proved to have provided false testimony, you could not punish all of the witnesses in the manner proscribed by the Torah unless they all knew that the testimony was false. Strictures like these meant that the Jewish courts understood the severity of the death penalty and were loath to use it as a form of punishment.
The Elul Connection
Shoftim is usually the first sedrah read during the month of Elul. The sedrah contains the laws about the Cities of Refuge. These were more than just places where someone who had taken a life could seek protection and/or serve out his sentence. They were places where a person could admit wrongdoing and begin life with a fresh start. Elul is our city of refuge because it is the month when we begin admitting our own wrong doings so that we can begin a fresh start on Rosh Hashanah. For more on this topic you might want to read Torah Studies by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.
Written Law and Oral Law
Shoftim provides many excellent examples of the interplay between these two concepts. For example, the Torah, the Written Law, states “…life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (19:21). It is the Oral Law that turns this into a concept of monetary compensation. To paraphrase Tevye, if this law were enforced as written there would soon be a world of one-eyed guys on crutches gumming their food. The Oral Law is not just some arid collection of meaningless debates.
Accepting a Decision
“You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you…” (17:1). It is not uncommon for Jews to have questions about proper moral or ritual behavior. For example, what time should Kol Nidre Services begin? Is cheese without a “hekhsher” kosher? Should you make a blessing over food that is not kosher? Can a non-Jewish doctor perform a brit? Is acceptable to have non-Jews at a Seder? If my child has married somebody whose parents are not Jewish, how do I deal with my in-laws’ holiday rituals? Many Jews will consult a Rabbi on these and many other such issues. Be careful whom you select. Because in Judaism, you are not allowed to shop around until you find a decision you like. You must accept the ruling of the first Rabbi with whom you consult. And there are some issues that are a lot more important than what kind of cheese you eat so you might want to take this message to heart as you try to make the Torah come alive in your daily life.
This sedrah seems at odds with at least two episodes in the second section of the TaNaCh called Neviim. First, in Chapter Eight of First Samuel, the people demand a king and Samuel opposes their wish. Samuel’s opposition would seem to be in contradiction to the Torah. In fact the Torah describes the very conditions under which a future generation would want a king, “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations that are around me.” Second is the reign of Solomon. If Solomon was the wise king we are told he was, he must have known the Torah. If he knew the Torah, then he had to know that all of those wives, all of those horses and all of that material wealth would lead to ruin. So if he was so wise and he knew all of that, why did he do it anyway? Is Solomon proof that no matter how wise we may think we are, we are all capable of folly and capable of sin? One thing we do know, Solomon violated the Laws of Kingship in the Torah and the years of his sons “were (not) prolonged over his kingdom.”
Teachers, Students and Eternity
“He shall flee to one of these cities and live” (19:5) is a verse from this week’s sedrah dealing with the Cities of Refuge. The Talmud interprets this to mean “If a disciple is exiled, his teacher is sent into exile with him, for it written ‘and live.’” The only way for a person to truly “live” is to study Torah - hence the sage accompanies the student. According to one Chassidic tale, teachers would even accompany their students if at the time of their death, they were sent to a place that was less then Paradise. Life-long learners need life-long teachers.
“If a matter be too hard for thee to decide… (any) matter of controversy within thy gates…thou shalt repair to the place the Lord…has chosen…and appear before the magistrate and present your case.” (17:8) is the verse from this week’s sedrah that set up an appeal process for deciding cases that were beyond the competence of the local officials. In a town beyond the Carpathian Mountains, a Rabbi decided a question about Kashrut with what some people thought was too much leniency. In accord with the rule, these dissenters went to the Chief Rabbi of the district, explained their case and asked that the local Rabbi be removed since they really did not have confidence in his decision making. The Chief Rabbi agreed that maybe too much leniency had been used, but he refused to remove the local Rabbi. Spinning the text from Devarim that had been cited, the Chief Rabbi said that maybe “the matter was too hard for thee to decide because there are matters of controversy with thy gates.” In other words, if you worked harder at getting along with one another there would fewer controversies and those that would exist could be easily decided.
If you were troubled about the ritual of breaking a heifer’s neck to bring closure to an unsolved murder, relax. You are not alone. According to some commentators this heifer ritual is classified with the Red Heifer as a ritual that will only be explained with the coming of the Moshiach. However, Blu Greenberg, a name familiar to some because of her writings about how to establish a Jewish home, has developed a fascinating commentary on these words. Not only is it rational, well written and fascinating, it also provides a fitting conclusion for a sedrah that begins by talking about and describing the responsibilities of community leaders by connecting this ritual to the role of moral leadership in our communities.
“DIRECT RESPONSIBILITY by Blu Greenberg
A corpse is found in an open field, the victim of violence. No family claims the body. The killer cannot be found. What must be done? Says Deuteronomy 21: Distances to the surrounding cities must be measured. Elders and judges of the nearest city are obliged to bring a calf that has never borne a yoke to an uncultivated wadi and there kill it by breaking its neck. The young calf, the pristine setting, and the manner of death are stark symbols of life brutally cut off. The elders then wash their hands and swear their innocence: "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see." Implicating these respected leaders seems outrageous. The Talmud (Tractate Sotah) asks: "Would it cross our minds that the elders are murderers?" Yet the charge is not murder but idly standing by. The elders must swear, says the Talmud, that "he did not come to us and get sent away without food and hospitality; we did not see him (go somewhere dangerous) and let him go unescorted." The first lesson of this law is that leaders are entrusted with setting the moral tone of a society. Thus, they can be held responsible for a social climate in which a person can go unnoticed, in which no one cries out "Halt!" to the murderer or "Lookout!" to the victim. Respected elders might not sully their hands with murder. But in any culture, they may be guilty of caring more for property or power than people. They are guilty unless they can swear that they tried their best to create a humane society, one that protects the weak, the outsider. We Jews know this well from the Holocaust. When Pastor Trocme of LeChambon set the tone, by sermon and example, for his small French community, five thousand Huguenots managed to save five thousand Jews, despite a continuous Nazi presence in their town. When the Polish church excluded Jews from its concern, all but a few extraordinary Christians turned on them. This notion applies to every structure with a hierarchy. In some institutions, everyone seems caring; in others, the entire bureaucracy seems designed to frustrate. The difference lies not in the human material, but in the ethical stance that is taken at the top and seeps down. Israel's army is a case in point. Despite the excesses of a few, its moral fiber is unmatched. How do so many nineteen-year-olds act with maturity and restraint while facing barrages of stones and curses? Why are its victories unmarred by rape? They are unmarred because such standards matter greatly to the leadership and are communicated to the rank and file. On the other hand, why is it that in the traditional community so many Jewish women suffer the status of agunot, wives whose husbands refuse to divorce them, when a reinterpretation of Jewish law could set them free? Here, too, the tone is set at the top, by rabbinic authorities and religious court judges who don't care enough about women's lives to right the wrongs. The law of the calf has a second lesson: A leader may not be a bystander. And there is no dispensation for "disaster fatigue," or allowance for valuing one human life less than another. Says the Torah: This victim, a stranger without family or friends - even from him you may not distance yourself. You cannot say "I'm not responsible" or "I've seen too much of this," or "I don't even know him." "Don't get involved" - that is the usual way out, for individuals and governments. But it is unacceptable. Surely history will convict the leaders of Europe and the United States who continue making bland statements over the cries of the victims in Sudan. Where are the government leaders? Have too many scenes of violence jaded the world? Leaders, like ordinary people, must order their priorities. Surely, they cannot do everything, all at once. But the Torah tells a leader always to bear in mind: You are responsible for the character of the society you lead; and the moment you have the power to help "the other," you are directly responsible.”
“You shall thus rid yourselves of evil.” (17:7). We are used to hearing about the “Yetzer ra,” the evil inclination. We pray to be moved toward the inclination to do good and to avoid the inclination to do evil. In other words, evil is not seen as an absolute force. But in this reading we are confronted with the concept of “evil” as a reality that needs to be eradicated. In a post-Holocaust world, there are those who have to believe that evil is a tangible real thing that has to be eradicated in the truest sense of that term.
The Man and The Book: Once again the Haftarah comes from the Book of Isaiah. But the words are those of “The Second Isaiah,” the Isaiah of the Exile. He is the unknown figure of the sixth century B.C.E. who offered hope and comfort to the Babylonian Exiles at the time of the coming of Cyrus the Great. His teachings comprise the last twenty-six chapters of the Book of Isaiah.
The Message: Hearkening back to the haftarah from Shabbat Nachamu, the prophet once again speaks literally of “comfort.” He opens with God announcing that He is “menachem-chem,” the one who “comforts you.” Since the Comforter of Israel is the Creator of the Universe, Israel need not fear those who attack her. The prophet then reminds the people that they were exiled because God punished them for their sins. But now they have drained dry the dregs from the cup of Divine wrath. Those who tormented Israel will suffer while the Israelites will be redeemed. In a shift of tone, the prophet provides a vision of Jerusalem and Zion and the return of the Exiles. The heathens who have occupied the city have no legitimate claim to it and will surrender it as an expression of Divine might. The Israelites will return to a land which will literally break forth in joy and song because the Lord has “comforted His people and redeemed Jerusalem.” When the day of redemption comes, Isaiah tells the people that they must “depart” from Babylonia. They will not leave in haste as their forefathers did from Egypt. There will be time to collect and purify the Temple vessels that were captured by the Babylonians. Unlike their ancestors who needed a Pillar of Flame and a Cloud, those returning from this exile will have faith that God is both leading them and protecting them from those who might chase after them.
Theme-Link: The link is not with the sedrah, but with the calendar. This is the fourth of the Seven Haftarot of Consolation. The themes of accountability and redemption are of increasing significance as we are reading this during Elul, the month in which we prepare ourselves for the judgmental days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Additionally this haftarah has influenced at least three aspects of Jewish life. First, as Plaut points out in his commentary, the Hebrew term “menacheme-chem” used in the opening sentence of the haftarah is the origin of the popular Hebrew name Menachem and its Yiddish variant, Mendel. So a person named Menachem Mendel would be one who brings a double portion of comfort to his people. Secondly, the words from the first two verses of chapter 52 are found in Lechah Dodi (Come My Beloved), the sixteenth century hymn sung on Friday nights to welcome the Sabbath Queen. The Fourth verse begins “Shake the dust off yourself, arise (52:2) dress up in your garments of glory (52:1).” Thirdly there is the reference to the Holy City and the simultaneous mention of Zion and Jerusalem (52:1). Zion was one of the biblical names for what is also called Jerusalem. It actually was a mountain in what became part of the City of David. For some, Zion became a reference to the spiritual aspect of the Holy City, while Jerusalem referred to its political and royal aspect. This duality is found over and over again in Jewish liturgy and writings. In modern times the author of Hatikvah captured it with the words “…to be a people free in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem."
Personal Note: Each year when we read Shoftim, I remember Shelly Luber, of blessed memory. He died in a tragic automobile accident three years after his Bar Mitzvah. I not only remember Shelly, who was a challenging student, I also remember his father Harvey, of blessed memory, my friend who tried to teach me to take life as it comes and enjoy what it had to offer. As important as the lessons of the reading are, the memories of their lives stands as an even bigger lesson.
Copyright, August, 2018, Mitchell A. Levin