You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Shoftim.
From Rav Dovber Pinson
Energy of the Week
The portion opens with the words “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your gates [to the cities] that Hashem, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment.” (Devarim, 16:18)
The instruction is to set up judges and law enforcement for yourself. The body is a temple, a house for the soul, to be protected and guarded from dangerous and destructive influences.
We have been given natural, biological gates to protect ourselves. Some of these are; the eyelids, to protect our vision, our lips and teeth to protect our speech, earlobes to allow us to filter the sounds that reach us, and nostrils to close against unwanted smells. It is up to us to devise a system of judgment and law enforcement, to use our naturally provided ‘gates’ to guard the senses from negative input that can potentially harm us.
Throughout the day, every day, we are continuously assaulted with sensory input, be it visual images or sounds, or other sensory influences.
Much of these are negative and potentially harmful to our integrity and purest sense of self.
We are told in this portion to protect our ‘city’ that we have been given as a gift, and as a result we will have righteous judgment.
When we are careful to allow only positive and helpful sensory input to be absorbed and make strict judgments and enforcements to prevent the negative input from damaging ourselves, we are then in a position of ‘righteous judgment.’ That is, clear vision and unprejudiced ability to choose the right path for ourselves that is aligned with our soul purpose.
The Energy of the Week
Filtering Sensory IntakeThis week provides us with the additional energy of distilling the information that we receive, and winnowing the negative input, allowing only the positive and helpful imagery to permeate.
Be aware of the imagery and sounds that surround you involuntarily, and those you choose to allow yourself to absorb. Use careful judgment and strict policing, to ensure that the input that you allow through the filter of your judgment is positive and helpful in your soul’s journey.
Imagery and sound, smell, sensation and taste are closely connected with our soul experience and can awaken a closer connection to our soul and soul source, or, alternately, create a distance from our authentic self.
Through choosing to take in and absorb only that which allows us to grow – we are creating a clarity of vision and purpose from which we can then judge our other decisions in life wisely and righteously.
Thank you for this insight about our biological gates that protect us
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
DEUTERONOMY 16:18 – 21:9
Shoftim defines the status and function of Judges, the King, the Priests, and
the Prophet in Israelite society. The people are commanded to set up Cities of
Refuge where someone who has killed accidentally can find sanctuary.
THE PORTION SHOFTIM TAKES US ON A JOURNEY through the inner landscape – giving us a vision of four aspects of Self that must be discovered, cultivated and refined. To receive the blessings of Shoftim, we must look within and do an accounting of these aspects of Self. As these aspects are acknowledge and honored, we are blessed with a life of consciously growing ourselves in Holiness and Wholeness.
THE FIRST ASPECT comes to us in the symbol of JUDGE, the Administrator of Justice. It represents the Power of Discernment. As we step onto the spiritual path, we learn that a basic and essential component of consciousness is the ability to discern. There are so many voices within that vie for our attention, all of them claiming to be the TRUTH. Our perceptions of Reality are colored by our conditioning, passing moods, hormonal changes, habits… and by the prejudices of the cultures that have shaped us.
In the pursuit of Justice, our Judge-within takes into account all the pushes and pulls of these forces of bribery. In the pursuit of Justice, she balances the powers of Love, Generosity, and Expansiveness, with the powers of Rigor, Limits, and Boundaries, while keeping the eyes of the heart wide open.
We rely on the Judge-within to discern and make audible the subtle voices of wisdom that might otherwise be drowned out by the din of fear, jealousy or habitual patterns of thought. He points us towards those subtle perceptions so that we can make room for their wisdom to be manifested in our lives. In the panoply of inner conversation, the Judge learns to be suspicious of certain voices, and to give absolute trust to others. A keen discernment of the forces of the inner landscape allows us to see the outside world with a new clarity. When our prejudices have been unmasked and our reactivity tempered by understanding, then we can pursue Justice wholeheartedly. Our hearts can remain open even in the face of difficult choices.
The Torah portion Shoftim tells us, “Justice (within, and), Justice (without) you must pursue,” and then you will receive the blessing of Life and “inherit the Land (the opportunities of incarnation) that God is giving to you.”1
THE SECOND ASPECT comes to us as KING, representing Mastery and our identification with the God-spark. When the aspect of Judge is refined enough to discern the inner voice of mastery (that part of us which is fully identified with the expanse of Soul), then the Judge, using utter discernment, raises up a King. The King rules by merit of his connection and identification with the Source of Wisdom and Compassion. The aspect of Self that is King speaks from that Source-point and can from there, access the widest possible perspective. Shoftim cautions us that the everpresent danger to this aspect of Self is inflation.
The blessing of the King connects us intimately with the Source of all wisdom, power and riches. Yet there is a danger in accumulating those gifts as if they, rather than God, were the goal of our quest. Jeremiah articulates this danger well when he says, “Let not the wise one glory in his wisdom, and let not the powerful one glory in his power. Let not the rich one glory in his riches. But let one that glories, glory in this: That he understands and knows Me.”2
The aspect of Self that is called King is the part that consciously “knows” God. It is the part of us that is intimate with the Mystery behind Creation. Through that intimacy the King dons the robes of mastery and the crown of sovereignty. In knowing God and in recognizing ourselves as a spark of the Divine, we learn to exult in the majesty of the cosmos and bask in the radiance and nobility that is our inheritance. This aspect of King allows us to embody spiritual authority when necessary.
THE THIRD ASPECT of Self that we are called upon to discover, cultivate, and refine is symbolized by the PRIESTS and LEVITES. This aspect represents our commitment to Spiritual Practice, Ritual, and Artistry. Just as the Judge-within discerns the true and faithful King that shines through us, that King shows us a vision of the Unity and Integrity of all-that-we-perceive. The vision flashes and fades and is given to us in bright glimpses that inspire and encourage the holiness that we are. How do we sustain that flashing vision? How do we unfold the implications of that awesome glimpse of the Unity of All?
The Priests and the Levites within us rise to this challenge and bless us with practices, rituals, and forms that are meant to imprint that vision onto the fabric of our lives. The Priest stands between Life and Death and shows us the Pathways of Holiness and Balance. She is the healer who sends us to face our own disease. The Levites give us the song that will lift our hearts into generosity and give us the courage to see the Truth and act righteously. They show us the dance that will sanctify each step on our journey. The Priests and Levites minister the forms of our religious life. They teach us how to celebrate and how to mourn; how to return when we have fallen away from ourselves.
YET EVEN THESE BEAUTIFUL FORMS inspired by revelation and majesty can become rigid and confining. Pulled into the details of ritual and form, we can sometimes lose track of the “big picture;” and the intention that created the ritual in the first place can get lost in the particulars of practice. We may also find ourselves seduced by the beauty of the song or the cleverness of the text.
THEN GOD RAISES UP, from deep within us, the fourth and last aspect of Self, which is called PROPHET. The essential quality of the Prophet is that she is whole-hearted before God. The true Prophet has not been corrupted by ambition, has not become lost in the forms or influenced by the passing fashions of the age. The Prophet’s mission is to be a clear channel for the Divine flow and to identify the ways in which that Divine flow is being obstructed. He cuts through self-deception and shatters the defenses so carefully constructed by the personality. The Prophet cares nothing for nostalgia, sentimental attachment, reputation, appearances, or the norms of society. He shakes things up when we get too comfortably complacent. He calls us back to our true essence when we have wandered too far. The Prophet calls us back to our depths when we become infatuated with those “other” gods of the surface world.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
AFTER BLESSING US with the fullness and richness of our inner aspects of Judge, King, Priest and Prophet, Shoftim sets forth a challenge. Each of these aspects emerges consciously as we step forth to deal deliberately with the situations that life presents. But it is the nature of Mind to babble on in a reactive chain of association, habit and contention. The mind has a comment or argument about everything. One thought compels the next and we are caught in an endless cycle. What do we do with the reckless power of our unconscious? How do we break free from the tyranny of Mind?
IN ORDER FOR THE VOICES OF WISDOM to emerge we must interrupt that cycle and enter a place of refuge from the cacophony. From that place of spacious refuge a new voice can emerge, a new course can be set, a new song can be heard.
To describe this unconscious thought that captures our awareness and leads to a reactive and compulsive chain of babble, we use the language of Torah, and name it a “murderer,” because its chokehold on the mind kills all possibility for true wisdom to emerge. This murderer is one who kills accidentally, without evil intention. Thus we designate the random thoughts that flit through the untrained mind without clear or deliberate focus. One thought compels the next, just as the avenger of the one murdered is forced to set in motion a cycle of violence that is endless.
The only hope we have for interrupting this cycle and giving our Mind the spaciousness that is required for wisdom to emerge, is in our establishing places of refuge within us.
We are commanded to set aside Cities of Refuge so that there may be an escape from the tyranny of the Mind. So important are the Cities of Refuge to the inner landscape that the Torah repeats this commandment three times. The establishment of these Cities of Refuge, in each corner of the inner landscape, ensures that wherever the mind wanders, and however far the sense of being lost in the labyrinth of Mind, we can find a way back to Center.
1 Deuteronomy 16:20
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website.
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
Parashat Shoftim (“Judges and Executors”) (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)
Provide yourself with judges and executors in all she’arekha (your gates) (Devarim 16:18). When? In all your gates, but especially do this practice during the month of Elul, the gate through which we enter the New Year.
What are judges and executors? The Slonimer Rebbe teaches us that it is never sufficient just to learn teachings. If we are unable to apply the teachings in our actual living experience, they will remain mere platitudes and will have little effect on the way we actually live. So, in order to make progress, to enter gates that lead us closer to Be-ing who G-ds us (Devarim 16:18), we need to cultivate two qualities: judges and executors. On the simplest level, that means both scholars and doers.
Judges alludes to cultivating the ability to discriminate between blessing and curse. This is a quality that is acquired through deep contemplation and reflection on the inner meaning and principles of Torah. It represents the perception and understanding of what is “lawful” and right. But, as essential as this quality is, without executors, we wouldn’t be able to apply the teachings in real life. We need not only knowledge of what is right, but the ability to act on our level of discrimination at the very moment that it ceases to be merely theoretical. Thus we must also cultivate the quality of executors, the motivated awareness to recognize when a teaching needs to be followed and the will to be able to make sure that what is required occurs.
In all your gates. According to Kabbalah, gates refers to the organs of sensation, particularly, the seven orifices of the head, ears, eyes, nose and mouth. In order to do teshuvah, to steer ourselves in the right direction, we need to have conscious judges present to monitor how we are relating to what we hear, see, smell, and taste. The presence of judges in this sense enables us to recognize whether what we are experiencing at any given moment through our senses connects us to Be-ing that G-ds us. If not, we need the power of our conscious executors to carry out our will, through enabling us to do teshuvah at that very moment, by separating ourselves from the energy that is leading us astray, and reconnecting ourselves to the Divine Presence within.
On another level, the Torah is teaching that it is most effective to do teshuvah (to turn ourselves back from distracted states of identification with what our senses are experiencing) if we recognize what is arising and intervene, while the thought or impulse is still in all your gates. The meaning is for the executor to be awake and ready to act, before the impulse or emotion is expressed. We need to be constantly aware of what is arising subjectively within our minds. As the Zohar interprets the verse, the master is known within the gates, (Proverbs 31:23), within the gates and imaginings of the mind stream. (Zohar Genesis, 103a).
Additionally, Rebbe Elimelekh, author of Sefer No’am Elimelekh, teaches that we have to make sure that our judges will make a judgment that is righteous (Devarim 16:18). Don’t make a judgment that creates a state in which you do not recognize the Presence, for if you bribe yourself with anything less, you will lose your Wisdom Eye and any claim of righteousness will be a distortion. (Devarim 16:19). The purpose of the inner judge is not only to enable us to act with intention, but to show us a way that can maintain, strengthen and renew our inner access to the witnessing Eye of Wisdom. The Wisdom Eye is the inner quality that enables us to be aware of the Divine Countenance. We need to provide ourselves with judges who can determine for us how to be in continuous relationship with Presence in any situation.
If you really want to be alive, don’t just settle for a concept of righteousness—continue pursuing righteousness until it arises in the very being of your Heart and there you will interface with the Ground of Be-ing that Be-ing who Gods you is giving you. (Devarim 16:20). We learn here not to be satisfied with only knowing what is righteous in your mind, dig deeper within until righteousness reveals itself to you in the very depths of your own Heart. When righteousness is present as an essential quality of the Heart, mind and heart can be integrated. In that unified state, the additional enlivening energy is provided that is necessary for manifesting divinity within earthiness itself.
With judges in place, we can witness objectively what is occurring so that when a manifestation of attraction or aversion arises within you through the gates of the senses that Be-ing who G-ds you provides and which may lead to a breach in your inner pact with Be-ing who G-ds you, making you a slave to other apparent powers…
Then, as soon as you become aware of it, give it your closest attention and if it is true that such an abomination is occurring within you, remove that manifestation of attraction or aversion that is causing this evil within the gates of your senses, strike it with the Jewels of Understanding, until that manifestation of attraction or aversion breaks open and the spark of divine energy that enlivens it is liberated. (Devarim 17:2-5).
As soon as the inner judge determines that an experience is developing that will sever our consciousness of inner connection with divine guidance, the inner executor must blast open the obfuscating experience with the energetic rays of understanding. If the executor is skillful, focused attention can pulverize the obscuration and enable the hidden divine energy to emerge and flow freely.
However this method of releasing holy sparks is not so easily mastered. It will certainly take at least two or three observations (of a particular form of attraction or aversion) before its energy can be liberated, its spark may not be fully liberated on the basis of consciously witnessing it only once. (Devarim 17:6).
Should this practice prove too confusing and you are unable to determine how to judge clearly what aspects of your experience that arise through the gates of your senses require the executor, then pray for divine guidance so you will reach a contemporary teacher who can teach you how to do it. Then you will be able to do what they teach you from the place of divine guidance and carefully adhere to the way that they teach it… (Devarim 17:8-11).
The more proficient you become in the practice of provide yourself with judges and executors (Devarim 16:18), the closer you will come to interfacing and resting in the Ground of Be-ing that Be-ing who G-ds you is giving you… (Devarim 17:14). Skillfulness and diligence in this practice leads to an increasing state of integration of all parts of oneself. As the integrated state becomes more constant, an abiding conscious center emerges, the inner ruler.
Then when you are ready for an inner ruler to arise…Make sure the inner ruler is one chosen by Be-ing who G-ds you from among the deepest parts of yourself that descend directly from the divine source. ((Devarim 17:15). As one develops judges and executors within, the ability to act decisively and intentionally increases. We must make certain that this inner ruler that arises is a divinely chosen melekh, who is in constant consultation with Be-ing who G-ds you and not a self-serving autocrat. (The Hebrew root MLKh means both sovereignty and consultation.)
This power must not be used to increase causes that will transport you back again into constricted consciousness, since Be-ing already taught you not to go back that way any more (even before the inner ruler arose). (Devarim 17:16).
And when the inner ruler is joyfully resting on the throne of inner consultation with divine Guidance, be sure to write down its inspired insights as oral Torah to be studied in the presence of the parts of oneself that serve and transport the Divine Presence. (Devarim 17:18).
The inner ruler should constantly review this teaching in order to learn how to remain in awe of Be-ing who G-ds you, through keeping all of this teaching and practicing it in the ways that are required. (Devarim 17:19).
By avoiding all narcissism and not deviating from divine instruction, the inner ruler can sustain its role of implementing divine guidance through integrating all parts of the self. (Devarim 17:20).
In this sacred month of Elul, the Gate of teshuvah,
Through which we enter the New Year,
May we all be blessed with increased motivation
To witness closely everything that enters
All of our Gates
So that through the efforts of our judges and executors
We may attain even greater closeness to the Divine Countenance
Through releasing the hidden energy of our holy sparks.
May we all be blessed with integrating inner rulers
Who vibrating in awe
In constant consultation with the Master of the Universe
Skillfully direct us on our evolving paths.
Rabbi Moshe Aharon Ladizhyner
(aka Rabbi Miles Krassen)
According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or left (17:11)
Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, known as “The Nodah B’Yehudah” after his work by that name, served as the rabbi of Prague from 1754 to 1793. Once a group of scholars who wished to contest his rabbinic qualifications presented him with a series of questions in Torah law. These fictitious “cases” were artfully constructed to be as complex and as misleading as possible, so as to ensnare the rabbi in their logical traps and embarrass him with an incorrect ruling.
The Nodah B’Yehudah succeeded in resolving all the questions correctly — all, that is, but one. Immediately his detractors pounced on him, demonstrating how his verdict contradicts a certain principle of Torah law.
Said the Nodah B’Yehudah: “I am certain that this case is not actually relevant, and that you have invented it in order to embarrass me.”
When questioned how he could know this with such certainty, he explained: “You see, whenever a being of flesh and blood is called upon to decide a matter of Torah law, we are confronted with a basic dilemma: How can the human mind possibly determine what is G-d’s will? The do’s and don’ts of Torah are the guidelines by which the Almighty desires that we order our lives. How is it that the finite and error-prone intellect is authorized to decide such Divine absolutes?
“But the Torah itself instructs that the ‘Torah is not in heaven’ but has been given to man to study and comprehend; and that whenever a question or issue is raised, it is a human being, employing his finite knowledge and judgment, who must render a ruling. In other words, when a person puts aside all considerations of self and totally surrenders his mind to serve the Torah, G-d guarantees that the result would be utterly consistent with His will.
“However,” concluded the Nodah B’Yehudah, “this guarantee only applies to actual events, when a rabbi is called upon to determine what it is that G-d desires to be done under a given set of circumstances; but not if his personal honor is the only issue at hand. Had you presented me with a relevant question, I know that I would not have erred, since I approached the matter with no interest or motive other than to serve the will of G-d. But since your case was merely a hypothetical question designed to mislead me, my mind was just like every other mind, great and small alike — imperfect and manipulatable.”
(Told by the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see… (21:7)
The principle behind the law of Eglah Arufah is that a person is also responsible for what occurs outside of his domain — outside of the areas where he is fully in control. When a murdered traveler is found out in the field, the elders of the nearest city must go out there and bring the Eglah Arufah to atone for the crime, although it occurred “outside of their jurisdiction”; for it was nevertheless their responsibility to send the traveler off with adequate provision and protection.
The same applies on the personal level in all areas of life. A person never has the right to say, “This is outside of my element. I have no obligation to deal with this.” If it is something that, by Divine Providence, one has been made aware of, that means that there is something one can, and must, do to positively influence the end result.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Judges and law officers you shall establish for yourselves at all your [city] gates … and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment
In the courts of Torah law that were established by Moses—and which continue to serve us to this day—cases are heard by a tribunal (bet din) of three judges.
Why three judges? Because, as the Talmud expresses it, “You should not judge alone, for there is none qualified to judge alone, only the One.” Nor can two judges form a bet din: because the Torah commands to “rule in accordance with the majority,” the bet din must consist of an uneven number of judges, so that in the case that there is disagreement between them, there will always be a majority opinion. Hence the requirement for three judges.
In addition to the standard three-member bet din, there were two types of higher-level courts in the Torah’s judicial system:
a) “Minor Sanhedrins” established in all major cities and districts. These consisted of 23 judges and were authorized to try capital offenses and other weighty matters.
b) The “Great Sanhedrin” of 71 judges which sat in a chamber in the courtyard of the Holy Temple. The Great Sanhedrin was the highest court of Torah law, having sole jurisdiction in matters of national importance.
Congregations of Judges
The Great Sanhedrin was modeled after the assembly of 70 elders which G-d instructed Moses to convene to assist him in the jurisdiction and governance of Israel. But why 23 judges in the other Sanhedrins?
The Talmud explains that the requirement for 23 judges is derived from the following verses, which discuss the trial of a person who has unintentionally caused the death of another:
The congregation [of judges] shall judge between the killer and the avenger of the blood, according to these judgments.
And the congregation shall save the killer from the hand of the avenger of the blood.
And the congregation shall send him back to his city of refuge.
In these verses, the Torah refers to three functions of the court:
a) To “judge” the accused—i.e., to seek to establish his guilt.
b) To “save” the accused—to seek to establish his innocence.
c) To hand down the verdict and—if the accused is found guilty—the sentence through which his rehabilitation will be achieved. (In the case of the unintentional killer, to “send him back to his city of refuge.”)
In the Sanhedrin, the judges themselves served in the roles of the “prosecution” and the “defense.” After hearing the testimony of the witnesses, the judges would divide themselves into two groups: those inclined to exonerate the accused, and those inclined to find him guilty. Each judge would express his view of the evidence and seek to convince his fellows of his position. The Sanhedrin would then vote. A majority of one (e.g., a vote of 12-11) sufficed to exonerate the accused; a majority of two (e.g., a vote of 12-10) was required to convict.
In the above-quoted verses, the Torah refers three times to the judges as a “congregation” (eidah), in connection with each of these functions—“judging,” “saving” and convicting/sentencing. Throughout the Torah, the word “congregation” is understood to mean a minimum of ten individuals. Thus, in a court authorized to try capital cases, there must be enough judges for at least a congregation of “savers” and a congregation of “judgers,” and that the court should still be able to convict the accused in such circumstances.This brings us to a total of 22 judges. For in the case that there are 10 “savers,” there must be at least 12 “judgers” (10+2) to convict. And since a court must always have an uneven number of judges, the “Minor Sanhedrin” must consist of at least 23 judges.
“A judge who judges with absolute truthfulness,” say our sages, “becomes like a partner with G-d in creation.” G-d modeled His world after the blueprint He had sketched in the laws of the Torah; by “maintaining” His creation in accordance with these laws, we become partners to His endeavor.
Thus, the forces that comprise a Sanhedrin mirror the dynamics of G-d’s creation: here, too, are element of “judgment,” “saving” and the verdict that is born of their combination. In the words of the Midrash:
G-d said: “If I create the world with Mercy, there will be many sinners; if I create with Law, how would it survive? So I shall create it with a combination of Mercy and Law.”
A human court that endeavors to be a partner in G-d’s creation must embody the three strains in these musings of the Creator’s mind. It must be an instrument of “mercy” that seeks the redeeming and exonerating element even in a person who has committed the worst of crimes. It must also be an instrument of “law” that vigilantly preserves the infrastructure of creation. And it must combine these two functions in the handing down of its verdict and sentence—a verdict and sentence that atones even as it punishes, that rehabilitates the person even as it condemns his deed.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Tammuz 28, 5720 (July 23, 1960)
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Shoftim
Maqam Ajam begins with a Ajam trichord on the first note and another Ajam trichord on the 5th note (the dominant), so for example:
On B flat
B flat C D E flat F G A B flat
Every Shabbat is associated with a musical figure called a *maqam, Arabic cognate to Hebrew maqom, Place.
This is the portion of justice
tzedek tzedek tirdof
you shall pursue it [Deut. 16:20]
the bride of God
you shall not plant an asherah [Deut.16:21]
some sort of Canaanite goddess
a cult tree
planted near the altar of God.
It took so long to separate
God and his bride
That their return to each other seems unlikely –
Not for us.
The bride of God will be reunited with her consort
we are talking about justice here too
the myth of return.
the holy Shabbes
the King and his consort
the goddess and her beloved
the Queen and her lover
will be re-united and it feels good
good the symmetry of return
rectifying something broken
separated so long ago –
they are love-making.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
THE PLACE (SHOFTIM) 2009
It is written
one who does not rebuild
the Temple in his lifetime
is as though
he had helped
to destroy it.
Can it be
that the sages
pillars of learning
who fail to rebuild
Rather: one who studies Torah
rebuilds the Holy of Holies
piece by piece
each soul has a spark
to that holy fire
one who does not know
which teachings are hers
to learn and give over
that one sins
but if she repents
if she grows in wisdom
she will see miracles
behind every corner
this is the true meaning of
“when in doubt
go up to the place
which Adonai has chosen”
when we learn
and holiness is restored
Reb Sholom Brodt
Hashem Is My Light My Salvation, The Stronghold of My Life
As mentioned above, it is customary to recite and meditate on Psalm 27 twice a day from the beginning of Elul until Hoshana Rabba, the last day of Sukkot. I was fortunate this week to learn the following teaching from the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l on the opening verse of this Psalm 27 תְּהִלִּים. א לְדָוִד: ה’, אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי–מִמִּי אִירָא; ה’ מָעוֹז-חַיַּי, מִמִּי אֶפְחָד.
1 [A Psalm] of David. Hashem ismy light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? Hashem is the source of my life-strength; of whom shall I be afraid?
King David, the Talmud tells us, would arise at midnight and pray to Hashem. That is when he composed the Psalms. Reb Shlomo zt”l once told us that the reason our prayers consist mostly of his Psalms is because before he prayed he would pray that he should ‘hear’ and ‘feel’ the prayers that were in the hearts of all his brothers and sisters. He prayed that he should ‘hear’ Hashem’s prayers.
In this opening verse we find three descriptions of the help that Hashem provides man in his service: “my light”, “my salvation”, and “the source of my life-strength.” We absolutely need these three types of help, says the Rebbe, in serving Hashem. We need Hashem to help us make the right choices in life, to overcome the obstacles that we will face along the way and to give us the necessary strength to keep on moving forward.
“Hashem is my light” – we need Hashem to enlighten us Hisso that we can make the right choices. Making the right choices is not always a simple matter. In fact the more important the decision, the more difficult it likely will be to make the correct choice. And so we pray to Hashem for His light.
“Hashem is my salvation” – we need Hashem to give us the strength to overcome all the obstacles that we will encounter along our journey. Even after we make the right choices and we know in which direction to go, the fact is that the journey is fraught with obstacles. Just because you make a good decision, it doesn’t mean that the ‘yetzer hara’ gives up on his task to derail you. One thing is sure, expect obstacles. If you don’t encounter any obstacles, it may be that you aren’t doing anything that is really important.
Pray for Hashem’s salvation, to give you strength, to keep your heart open and to realize that the obstacles are there only to make you go higher. Stop for a moment and concentrate on – “Shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid- I place Hashem before me, at all times.” (Psalm 16) This meditation will/should give you the strength to rise above the obstacles that are both in ‘front’ of you and ‘behind’ you.
“Hashem is the stronghold of my life” The third thing we need to proceed further in serving Hashem, is the strength to continue moving forward- not to stop at any point and say I’ve gone far enough. If a person ‘stops growing’, stops moving forward and higher, he is setting limits on his connection with the Ein Sof Baruch Hu- the Infinite One, blessed be He.
MAKING HASHEM THE REALITY OF YOUR LIFE
JUDGES AND OFFICERS, YOU SHALL APPOINT FOR YOURSELF, IN ALL YOUR GATES… (16:18)
The Baal Shem Tov interpreted this verse as follows: The ‘judges and officers’ refer to “Ahavah and Yirah” – love and fear of Hashem. ‘In all your gates’ refers to all your thoughts. I.e., appoint judges and officers to ensure that your thoughts are guided by your love and fear of Hashem.
[‘Sha-arecha’ is the Hebrew word for ‘your gates’. ‘Shaar’ is a gate. ‘L-sha-eir’ also means to estimate and evaluate – hence ‘sha-arecha’ – your gates, is further extended to mean your thoughts and considerations.]
This then is the deeper meaning of the verse “Her husband is well-known at the gates, as he sits with the elders of the land.” (Proverbs 31.) (found in the Eishet Chayil [Woman of Valor] song that we sing on Friday nights at the Shabbos table before Kiddush.) The “Woman of Valor” is ‘knesses Yisrael’ – the community of souls of Israel, and “Her husband” refers to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, The Holy One Blessed Be He; He is well-known at the gates, meaning that Hashem is recognizable in the way she- [the souls of Israel] evaluates and makes decisions. In all her decision making it is apparent that her vision of Hashem guides her footsteps. G-d is the evident reality in her life.
MASTERING YOUR THOUGHTS
Rebbe Nachman zt”l taught the human mind is like a horse, which moves in whichever direction you pull the reins. Often we behave as if, and think that we don’t have control over our thoughts, as if our minds have minds of their own. However, this is not so.
Learning to meditate is to learn how to master ones thoughts – to think about what we want to think about and to think in ways that we want to think. Love and fear are the two primary motivators of all human behavior. Our thoughts can and should be determined by our love and fear of Hashem.
Reb Avraham Greenbaum
The Torah commands us not to loose our sensitivities even in time of war. Even when fighting our enemies, we are not allowed to wantonly destroy property. It is in the context of the laws of warfare that the Torah gives us the law of “BAL TASHCHIS” (“Do not wantonly destroy.” Deut. 20:20). If this law applies to our enemies’ property even in time of war, how much more it applies to our own property and to public property in time of peace. We are to value that which has value, and not to needlessly waste and destroy. This applies to the natural wealth and resources of the earth, which are being mindlessly exploited and destroyed for the sake of immediate gain without a thought for the long-term.
The closing mitzvah of parshas SHOFTIM is that of the heiffer whose neck is broken in a ceremony that comes to atone for an unsolved homicide – a case in which a body is found in the open but the killer is unknown. It is noteworthy that the judges of the town nearest to where the body is found require atonement. It is their responsibility to see that their town is properly organized to take care of visitors and the needy, so that no-one is forced to take to the roads in search of hospitality, thereby exposing himself to the attendant dangers from roaming killers.
“Atone for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, Hashem, and do not put innocent blood among Your people Israel, and let the blood be atoned for them” (Deut. 21:8).
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God. (Deut. 18:13)
Look, here in my hands:
my heart beats
like a bullfrog breathing.
I want to give you
all that I am, even the parts
I’ve been afraid to show
everything predictable in me
and in another chamber
longings and proclivities
I don’t know the words for.
How gently you ask me
to peel back my ribs
and reveal what’s inside.
To really believe
I’m a reflection of the one
who will never cast me away.
From Rabbi Melanie Aron
D’var Torah: Shoftim – Cities of Refuge
August 28, 2011
by Melanie Aron
(Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Reform Voices of Torah)
Several years ago I read an article by Jared Diamond in The New Yorker Magazine1 about the experiences of a young man in the New Guinea Highlands in trying to fulfill the obligation placed upon him by his community as the “blood avenger” of his uncle’s death. Just as in ancient biblical society, vengeance was the responsibility of the nearest kin, but in this case, his uncle’s son was too young, his uncle’s brother was too old, and so it devolved on him as the nephew. Until he fulfilled his duty, he felt a sense of guilt toward his uncle, a sense that his uncle was not memorialized in the proper way, and that the loss of his uncle’s potential as a future leader of his community was not properly acknowledged. The young man was relatively “westernized,” working for Chevron Texaco, and aware of the democratic national government in New Guinea, his stone-tool-using community having assimilated significantly since their first contacts with Australian and Dutch prospectors in the 1930s. Yet his responsibility to right this wrong was too important and too personal to leave to the government.
Diamond also reflects on the strong human impulse toward vengeance in recounting the story of his own father-in-law, Jozef, who in the period immediately after World War II, spared the killer of his mother, sister, and niece, choosing instead to turn him over to the new Polish government. At the time of the shooting, the three women had been hiding from the Nazis in the Polish countryside. The murderer had learned of their hiding place and, assuming all Jews to be rich, had come to rob them. Disappointed that they had nothing for him to steal, he shot them with the help of two associates and buried them in shallow graves.
At the moment when Jozef had the opportunity to shoot his mother’s killer, he “kept hearing in his mind the words, ‘I’ve seen enough of people killing and behaving like animals. I’ve done enough killing myself. This man behaved like an animal, but I don’t want to become an animal myself by shooting him’ ” (ibid., p. 86). Yet sixty years later, Jozef admitted to his daughter, “Every day, still, before going to sleep, I think of my mother’s death, and of my having let her murderer go” (ibid., p. 87). He felt that in not having exacted vengeance, he had failed his mother in some way.
Our Torah portion this week deals with the cities of refuge (Deuteronomy 19:1-13), which represent a sort of way station between the society of the New Guinea Highlanders, where vengeance remains in the hands of the family members, and our modern nation, where we have agreed to leave vengeance to the state and not to take the law into our hands. The cities of refuge were there to protect the person who committed accidental manslaughter from the “blood avenger,” assuming there was no animus or premeditation. Though not entirely resolving the problem of ongoing feuds fueled by revenge killings, it did prevent them in at least some cases.
Scholarly thinking is that these cities of refuge really existed: “The Biblical institution is not utopian. Among ancient peoples (Phoenicians, Syrians, Greeks and Romans) certain shrines or sacred precincts provided security to fugitives.2
While cities of asylum are mentioned in a variety of sources in the ancient Middle East, we have explicit reference to sanctuaries as a place of refuge for “men suspected of capital offences,” in the writings of Tacitus, and a continuing a trail of references to asylum of a variety of sorts that begins with a clause in the Sfire treaty inscriptions, dating back to the first millennium, and identifying Aleppo as a city of refuge.3
How did the city of refuge become acceptable to a community accustomed to vengeance at the hands of the closest family member? I think an important aspect of this compromise was the burden of exile placed upon the individual who had committed manslaughter. He did not return to life as usual, but was banished from his ancestral portion until the death of the High Priest, whose own death provided expiation for the blood that had been spilt. This punishment had an emotional logic that went beyond the requirements of the biblical concept of the pollution caused by bloodshed. Both for the family of the victim and for the perpetrator this banishment provided recognition of the very real wrong that had resulted from the actions of an individual however well- intentioned.
In our modern society, manslaughter is more likely to be caused by a car accident than a misplaced ax head, but the underlying emotional reality is the same. The family of the victim still needs to feel that the wrong done to them has been acknowledged. Even where there is no criminal liability, no speeding or drunk driving, there is the terrible loss that has resulted from a misstep of some sort. In addition, individuals who caused this kind of accident often need a way to deal with the guilt they feel subsequent to the hurt they have caused. Our legal system often prevents perpetrators from being able to acknowledge their feelings of guilt. Their attorney, concerned with protecting the accused from future litigation, will often discourage admittance of any degree of responsibility. Where there is no legal culpability, there is no system in place for restitution or reconciliation.
A member of our congregation brought to my attention a contemporary play, Rabbit Hole, by David Lindsay-Abaire, written about an analogous situation. In the play, a seventeen-year-old driver accidentally hits a young boy with his car causing his death. The young perpetrator is driven to do something in memory of the child. While not legally responsible, the young man still felt the burden of guilt.
How much wisdom there is in our tradition, which recognizes that the burden of moral responsibility can exist even where there is no legal responsibility. An institution originally devised to prevent unnecessary bloodshed also takes on a role in meeting the need for recognition of the significance of the loss of life, even when caused inadvertently.
1 Jared Diamond, “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance is Ours,” The New Yorker,April 21, 2008 pp. 74-87 (see http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/04/21/080421fa_fact_diamond)
2 Encyclopedia Judaica, Second Edition, Volume 4 (San Francisco: Thomson Gale, 2007) p. 742
3 Al Kanfei Yonah, Jonas C. Greenfield, “Asylum at Aleppo: A Note on Sfire III,4-7” (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2001) p. 320
From Rabbi Saraleya Schley
(Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) Preparing to Meet the Beloved; Rosh Hodesh (new moon) Elul; 4th Shabbat of Consolation
“You shall appoint shoftim, judges and shotrim, officers, at all your gates (D’varim16:18).”
“Ani L’dodi, V’dodi Li – I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine (Song of Songs 6:3)”. The name of this Hebrew month, Elul, is spelled Aleph-Lamed-Vav-Lamed, which are the initial letters of this phrase.
Our weekly parashah begins with the directive to create judicial systems including the often-cited dictum: “Justice, justice you shall pursue (D’varim 16:20).” In the manner of mystical commentators, one looks beyond the system of laws and courts to a psycho-spiritual interpretation.
What are the gates of the soul and what would it mean to place judges and enforcers at these gates? The classic esoteric gloss is to consider the gates of the soul as the senses. We are asked to monitor the interfaces between ourselves and the outside world to know what information is coming toward our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin. The process of judging is to use our facility for discernment (hitbonnenut) as our Observer Self watches how we react to what comes in and how we modulate what goes out. The Kabbalistic and Hasidic masters were practitioners of mindfulness. The process of enforcement involves setting limits for ourselves, creating boundaries with appropriate gateways.
Further, the esoteric seekers ask what other gateways are part of our experience? Clearly, the new moon is one of the gates in time. And Rosh Hodesh Elul is an especially propitious time that begins the 40-day annual cycle of T’shuvah, of retuning and returning. [On the 1st of Elul, tradition tells us that Moses ascended the Mountain to receive the second set of Tablets; On Yom Kippur, he descended.]
According to the Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, what is unique about the T’shuvah of Elul is that there is a level beyond the daily self-examination that is focused on our less than flawless attributes and behaviors. During this season, we are also approaching the Beloved as She is waiting for us in the field. The T’shuvah of this season is not just about analyzing how we have fallen off the path, but it is a return to cleaving, attachment, love – d’veikut. We confront our imperfections and consciously acknowledge all the situations where we have much to improve upon. Then, we bring our imperfect selves to the Beloved and we are greeted with an embrace of acceptance: “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine”.
So, at all of our gates – e.g., the gateways of personal experience and the gateways of time – we place judges and officers. In order to be the best children, servants and lovers of the Divine, we must bring discernment to our lives. We can begin the practice of t’shuvah with mindful observation of our responses to the input to our senses: noticing the bombarding array of sights, sounds, fragrances, touches and thoughts, discerning which ones to attend to, and consciously choosing our reactions. We offer ourselves to sacred practice, certain of the Reciprocity waiting for us.
With blessing for continued wise-hearted discernment, and for joyous cleaving to to the Divine Beloved,
29 Av 5771 – 1st day Rosh Hodesh Elul
August 29, 2011
O holy Shabbes Shoftim
Someone found slain
no one known responsible
a body found in the woods
at the bottom of a well
the remains of a person unearthed
under a construction site –
a person killed.
Who is responsible for life taken
in ways unknown.
This mysterious mitzvah of Torah
eglah arufah – the broken-necked calf
some connection to cleansing the community
from unspecified sin [Lev. 4:13-15]
and the other great mystery mitzvah
the red heifer. [Num. 19:2 ff.]
Eglah arufah the mystery
of the broken-necked calf.
If, in the land
someone slain is found lying in the open
the identity of the slayer not being known
your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distances
from the corpse to the nearby towns.
The elders of the nearest town shall take a calf
which has never been worked, bring it down to a rugged wadi
which is neither plowed nor sown.
There, in the wadi, they shall break the calf’s neck.
The priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward
then all the elders of the town nearest the corpse
shall wash their hands over the calf
whose neck has been broken
and say “our hands did not shed this blood,
neither have our eyes seen it.
Forgive, O God, your people Israel
whom you have redeemed
and do not let guilt for the blood
of the innocent remain
among your people Israel.” [Deut. 21:2-8]
Rashi quoting the Talmud:
what kind of confession is this?
Who would imagine the elders had anything
to do with it?
The point: everyone is responsible
a life has been taken
the whole community is somehow
who was not involved?
A closer look at the culture
it’s the culture it’s the culture.
Three sets of elders are part
of the ritual.
First group of elders measures the distance
from where the body is found to the nearest town
3 to 5 elders who came from the High Court in Jerusalem
to make the measurement. [BT Sota 45a]
We have come to make the measurement
the closest settlement –
Silver City –
We will focus our inquiries there
or we will place responsibilities when
the detectives arrive.
Another team comes then from town
and their task is to take the calf down to a wadi
a wild place neither plowed nor sown.
Finally the elders of the closest town
the third group of elders
shall wash their hands and say this:
our hands did not shed this blood
neither have our eyes seen it.
Magical the myth of it
absolvement through mystery ritual
this from Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra.
From Maimonides –
a mystery story
a strategy to solve a murder [Guide 3:40]
the murderer probably lives nearby
stir it up –
the more likely someone will be found responsible
[I’ve seen Ice T. do this on television].
You shall act in accordance with the instructions
given you and the ruling handed down to you
you must not deviate from the verdict
they announce to you
– either to the right or to the left. [Deut. 17:11]
Rashi: you bowed to the court
even when you thought it was wrong. [Rashi on 17:11]
Not the Rabbis
you might think you are to follow
if the Sages tell you that the left is right
and the right is left
not so – [JT]
only when they tell you that the right is right
and the left is left –
When the professionals conspire to alter truth
you follow what’s right
not who’s in authority
the truth is stronger than authority
truth stronger than bureaucracy
there is only one true power
and it speaks to the individual –
you can trust it.
James Stone Goodman
From the Jewish Theological Seminary
By Dr. Ofra A. Backenroth | Associate Dean, The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education
Is there a way to wage war in a humane way? As I am thinking about Parashat Shofetim, the weekly Torah portion, only a few weeks after the 46th anniversary of Israel’s Six-Day War, I cannot avoid reliving the fear I felt when I heard the first siren on the morning of June 6, 1967. I was only a few months away from enlisting in the army for two years; many of my friends and family were called to the front. Then, as now, questions about the ethics of war were very much on our minds. Growing up, I was raised on the ideal of הנשק טהר(tohar haneshek, purity of the arms). I was educated to be an Israeli idealist, but I still struggled with the consequences of what seemed to be an unavoidable war. Reading this parashah, I am reminded that the issue of humane war was also on the minds of our Sages.
Deuteronomy is a legal corpus that extensively treats the questions of appropriate wartime behavior. Parashat Shofetim introduces the first group of regulations (20:1–9, 10–18, 19–20); interestingly enough, these regulations are not what one might expect from a body of laws related to warfare. One cannot find any mention of the strategic laws, logistics, and tactics of battle. Instead, the parashah deals with what might seem to be peripheral aspects of war and the people who are affected by it: women who are left behind when their husbands go to war; fatherless children; unattended cattle; fruit that is unharvested or spoiled or harvested by someone other than the rightful owner; and members of the side being attacked. I wonder what message our Sages wanted to leave us with this portion. As an educator, I wonder if we can draw a parallel between the rules of war explained here and our current teaching methodologies. If Torah teaches us to differentiate among people who are engaged in war, can we adapt the same approach to the way we treat people in general? Can we learn from our Sages’ ability to see differences in situations and contexts that we can transfer to the way we treat our students?
The first rule defines those who are released from the duty of war: men who built a new house, planted a vineyard, or were betrothed.
And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying: “What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it.
And what man is there that hath planted a vineyard, and hath not used the fruit thereof? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man use the fruit thereof. And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her.” (Deut. 20:5–7)
The Torah is sensitive to all of those who planted a seed for the future but did not have the chance to benefit from it, and stipulates that if there is a chance that the soldier may die in battle and someone else will benefit from the fruit of his toil, he is deferred from service. These rules are for the benefit of the individual and his family.
The Torah continues with a rule that protects the individual soldier and his relationship with the army as a whole, “And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say: ‘What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren’s heart melt as his heart’” (Deut. 20:8). Here we have an example of sensitivity to the emotional health of the individual and to the well-being of the army in general. The Torah recognizes the fact that not everyone is suited to fight in a war. While everyone is called to protect the Nation and the Land, there should be exceptions. These might be pacifists, artists, or those who just cannot face the killing fields. These individuals are commanded not to join the army so that they do not sow fear and discouragement among other fighters….
There is, however, a condition to this exemption. People who are allowed to avoid the battlefields still have responsibility for the good of the country. In Sotah 8:2 it is written: “All these hear the priest’s words concerning the battles of war and return home, and they supply water and food and repair the roads.” So the mishnah stipulates that while these citizens are deferred from going to the battlefield, they are still obliged to help with the war effort. They are still capable of contributing. Those who remain at home help the war effort by supplying food and water and by repairing the roads that are crucial to the soldiers who are on the front lines.
The concept of differentiation, exemplified in this rule, is at the core of the educational philosophy at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. The school recognizes that differentiation—understanding that people come from different backgrounds, have various degrees of knowledge and ideas, and bring with them different talents and creativity—is the backbone of good instruction and effective leadership. Over and over again, I find it fascinating to see that our ancient texts express the same educational principles we teach our students. Working with students to find the best way to engage them is the most fruitful way of reaching them.
The Torah continues and explores another important principle that is highly valued by educators—conversation. In verse 10, the leader is required to try to make peace and solve the conflict in a noninvasive manner: “When thou drawest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it” (Deut. 20:10). And only if asking for peace does not work, then the army can attack. Torah encourages us to find solutions to our problems by trying the peaceful way and finding common ground instead of attacking. Parents, educators, and leaders need to learn from this stance and encourage conversation and peaceful problem resolution.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Fear: One Horse or Many? (5773/2013)
When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horse and chariot – forces larger than yours – do not fear them, for the Lord your God is with you. (Deuteronomy 20:1)
How could a single horse and chariot be seen as “forces larger than yours?”
Rashi (1040-1105) says: It’s a matter of perspective. What looks to us like a multitude of challenges looks to God like a very small thing. Translated (by me) into psychological language: facing difficult tasks alone is not easy. You can strengthen yourself by opening up to a spiritual perspective, in which you are guided by a larger community, history or universe.
Kli Yakar (1550-1619) says: “A single horse and chariot” refers to a unified enemy; “forces larger than yours” refers to a divided enemy. Do not fear a divided enemy group; their own internal conflicts will defeat them. This process happens of its own accord and may even look like a quiet miracle from the hand of God.
Ohr Hachaim (1696-1743) says: “War,” in this passage, is a metaphor for an individual’s internal struggles of conscience. “Chariot” refers to our inner drives; “horse” to our evil inclination, the inner voice that directs the drives into stealing, cheating, and overeating. Drives and evil inclination are part of the human psyche, and not inherently frightening. But if we have given in to temptation, we may carry a multitude of guilty memories, making us afraid to begin self-examination and interpersonal reparation. But we need not fear; God is even present in guilt.
As you prepare for the New Year, may you be open to spirituality, assured that problems can work themselves out, and willing to move from feeling to action.
Reb Miles Krassen
Planetary Judaism Weekly Shi’ur
From the Maqam Project
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
From Melissa Carpenter
Shoftim: Saving Trees
August 24, 2014 at 8:31 pm | Posted in Shoftim | Leave a comment
Tags: bal tashchit, Deuteronomy, torah portion
When you besiege a town for many days, to make war against it, to capture it, lo tashchit its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you will eat from them, so you shall not cut them down; for is a tree of the field ha-adam, to come in front of you in the siege? (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:19)Peaches_clip_art_hight
lo tashchit (לֹא־תַשְׁחִית) = you shall not destroy, ruin, corrupt.
ha-adam (הָאָדָם) = human (as an adjective); the human, humankind (as a noun).
The above verse from this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (“judges”), assumes that it is acceptable to make war in order to capture a town belonging to a different tribe or nation. If humans from the town get in your way, you may kill them. Everyone does it.
However, the verse does challenge the idea that it is acceptable to cut down your enemy’s orchards and groves. This practice both allowed the besieging forces to vent their spleen, and ensured that even if the siege failed, the town would still suffer in the long term, deprived of both fruit and a means of livelihood. (For example, olive oil was a major export of the portion of Canaan the Israelites conquered.)
The Talmud generalizes the prohibition against cutting down fruit trees in a siege to cover any wasteful destruction, including tearing fabric when you are not in mourning (Kiddushin 32a), or scattering your money in anger (Shabbat 105b).
Rambam (the 12th-century commentator Moses Maimonides) wrote that the verse in this week’s Torah portion applies to any injury to a fruit tree. However, he said, the tree may be removed if it is damaging other trees, or even if its wood can be sold at a high price. The important thing is to avoid any needless destruction. He extended this idea to cover ruining edible food or demolishing a usable building.
The prohibition against waste and useless destruction came to be called bal tashchit. (Bal, like lo, means “not”.)
Many societies have rules against destroying a fellow citizen’s property. What stands out about the Jewish principle of bal taschchit is that it prohibits useless destruction of both enemy property, and your own personal property.
According to the 13th-century book Sefer Ha-Chinukh, the purpose of bal taschchit is to train us to avoid acting on evil impulses. Wicked people revel in destruction and corruption. By following the rule to eschew waste and preserve everything useful, we gradually reduce our impulses to destroy something, and develop a better attitude.
Imagine if everyone followed the rule of bal taschchit today!
Who knows, maybe the modern ethic of “reduce, re-use, recycle” is training us to disapprove of wasting the earth’s resources. Maybe the people of the world are almost ready to rally to a new call to save the world from the pollution that leads to “global climate change”—which really means ruin and hardship all over the world.
May it be so!
From Rabbi David Ingber
From Rabbi David Kasher
BUBER’S TREE – Parshat Shoftim
What is a tree?
That almost-too-simple question has the Biblical commentators all in a tizzy this week. Their problem is not botanical, however – it is linguistic. It is the strange phrasing of a verse in Parshat Shoftim that has prompted a great deal of speculation on the nature of trees.
That verse appears in the midst one of the commandments in the laws of war, which dictates that, when in a prolonged battle against a city, one may not cut down its fruit trees. This seems, at first, to be a practical warning. Do not get so caught up in destruction that you foolishly destroy a useful food resource. But then there is a strangely poetic line, that suggests some other ethic may be at play.
For a person is a tree of the field, withdrawing before you into the siege. (Deut. 20:19)
כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה, לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר
A person is a tree of the field? Whatever does that mean? And why exactly would it keep you from chopping down fruit trees? If the verse had read, “a tree is a person,” that might mean that a tree deserves the same compassion as an innocent person. But this says the opposite: “a person is a tree.” How are we to understand that?
Rashi deals with the difficulty by reading the verse as a question – and an incredulous one at that. So we read the same words, but like this:
For a person is a tree of the field, withdrawing before you into the siege?!
Or, to fit it better to English grammar, the verse as Rashi is reading it, is asking, “So you think this tree is a person, who has the ability to run from you when you come to chop it down?!” And the answer, of course, is: “No!” A tree is not a person, it has no legs, and cannot flee like your enemy can, so you cannot treat it like just another combatant. You must have sympathy for the poor, immobile tree – this living thing that never asked to go to war.
But Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra does not like this reading. Because it puts the verse at odds with the rest of the passage, which gives no indication of compassion for trees. After all, you are allowed to cut down regular, non-fruit-bearing trees. So the law seems specifically designed to serve human interest.
What then, of the person being a tree of the field? Here is Ibn Ezra’s answer:
“For a person is a tree of the field,” meaning, the life of a person comes from the trees of the field.
כי האדם עץ השדה והטעם כי חיי בן אדם הוא עץ השדה
Okay, so the Ibn Ezra found a way to read this line that matches the context. “A person is a tree of the field,” is shorthand for “A person is able to be a person because of the sustenance they get from the trees of the field.”
So Ibn Ezra takes the verse as a practical lesson in resource-management, whereas Rashi hears the Torah calling on us to feel compassion for the plant world. But both interpretations require a strained reading of the verse itself. Rashi has to read it as a rhetorical question. And Ibn Ezra’s reading requires us to insert a whole new thought, an implied causal relationship between the life of the tree and the life of the person.
The other thing that Ibn Ezra and Rashi have in common is a fundamental presumption of human superiority. For Ibn Ezra, the tree is only there to service the human being. Rashi does call on us to care for the tree, but from a place of pity for a lesser creature. In both readings, the person is clearly greater than the tree. A bit ironic, when the words of the verse themselves seemed to equate a person to a tree.
There is one Jewish thinker, however, who did describe the possibility of an equal relationship between humans and trees. It is the twentieth-century philosopher Martin Buber, and he was not commenting directly on our verse in Deuteronomy. The description appears, instead, in a classic passage from his most famous work, I and Thou. The fundamental premise of the book is that we encounter the world in two different ways: In the I-It encounter, we experience things outside of ourselves as objects, from which we are totally separate; In the I-Thou encounter, we turn toward those outside of us as The Other, in a true and mutual relationship. What is the difference? Buber’s first illustration of the two forms of encounter is with – you guessed it – a tree:
I contemplate a tree.
I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air–and the growing itself in its darkness.
I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.
I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law – those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.
I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.
Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.
That is the I-It encounter, in which the tree remains an object of my contemplation. This is Ibn Ezra, who regards the tree as a source of nutrients, to be harvested for his purpose. But it is also Rashi, who does consider the experience of the tree, but from a place of observation from above: What kind of life-form is this? What is are its conditions and capabilities? What is my ethical obligation to this thing?
Buber continues, however, with the possibility of another kind of encounter with the tree:
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me…
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it–only differently.
One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.
Relation is reciprocity. We stand in a mutual relationship, so we owe each other full recognition. When I encounter the tree, I do not merely encounter it as a tree, but as another being, it its fullness. And that Other is also encountering my whole being, in its fullness. The tree is relating to me as well! Does that imply that the tree is conscious and aware, like a person? Buber does not commit to that much:
Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.
Who knows what the tree truly perceives? The point is, however, that we can relate to the tree fully, as a unique living entity, standing across from us, calling out to us with the fullness of its being. We relate to it as fully as we might relate to a person. Perhaps, in such an encounter, Buber could read our verse plainly, in the most straightforward meaning of its words:
For a person is a tree of the field.
A person it is. That is, it is another being, like myself. I am related to it, and it is related to me.
Now, how can I cut down such a one?
Was Buber thinking of the verse in Deuteronomy when he wrote this passage? Who knows. But we do know that he was a Biblical scholar and translator. He surely knew our verse well, had read it many times.
And I suspect that, unlike the many commentators who had come before him, Martin Buber was able to read this verse with no great difficulty. For where they had all read it and asked, “What is a tree to us?” Buber asked instead, “Who is this tree to me?” And he imagined the tree facing back towards him, like a person, asking in return, “And who are you?”
All of this may sound quite strange – nearly mystical. But the Buberian approach has one important real-world implication for our soldier that the other interpretations lack. For if I can come to feel this sense of relationship to a tree, what will happen when I turn to face my enemy, another human being? If I can recognize and be recognized by a being in the natural world, how much more profound will be the recognition I find in another person like myself? In fact, in his book, Buber moves directly from the tree passage to consider the same kind of encounter with a person:
If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I-Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things.
Human beings, too, can be objectified – categorized, quantified, and held at a distance. They must be so reduced, if they are to be fought in battle, and killed. But like the tree – more than the the tree – every person can also be seen in the fullness of their being: recognized, met, and drawn into relationship. This person, like the tree, “confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it.”
For a person is my enemy. A person like me.
Pursue Justice So That You May Truly Live
A d’var Torah on Parshat Shoftim 5776 by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
This week’s Torah portion contains one of the most famous justice-related verses in Torah: “צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף, / tzedek tzedek tirdof” — “Justice, justice shall you pursue!”
Although the parsha begins with the injunction to establish judges, this instruction — to pursue justice — doesn’t seem to be aimed solely at those whose job it is to judge. Even those who don’t practice justice for a living do judge others, whether or not our judgements have legal standing. So what does it mean to judge justly — not just for those who work in the justice system, but for the rest of us, too?
Torah offers some answers: don’t favor the rich because they’re powerful, or the poor because they’re the underdog. Here’s another: I think justice requires the ability to empathize with the other whom we are judging. This flows from the mitzvah at the very heart of the Torah (it’s the middle verse of the middle book): “You shall love your neighbor / your other as yourself.” This might seem like a tall order to put in front of America’s judges. We can’t mandate that judges cultivate love for the people who stand accused before them. But we can aspire to live with empathy as a basic mode of being in the world.
In Torah terms, tzedek is about rectification, setting something right. In this week’s portion we read that a person can’t be put to death on the testimony of a single witness. We read, too, about the establishment of “cities of refuge” where someone who committed accidental manslaughter can flee (thereby avoiding the endless cycle of retribution that might otherwise ensue — “you killed one of my people, so I’ll kill one of yours in return.”)
Both of these Torah teachings flow from empathy. We have to have empathy for the person accused of a capital offense, because otherwise it would be too easy to condemn them to death on a too-thin pretext. We have to have empathy both for victims of crime and for those accused of crimes, because otherwise it would be too easy to either ignore victims or pursue punitive action that isn’t actually just at all.
For me, the commandment to love my neighbor or my other as myself is a reminder that we all have one heart. No matter how different our life circumstances may be, how different our opportunities, how different our choices, we all have the same heart. And that in turn means that if I’m going to judge someone for their action (or their inaction), I need to be willing to place myself in that place of being judged, too.
Because we all have one heart, when I judge someone else, I’m judging my own heart as well. If I can stand up to the judgement I make of another, because I’m making that judgement with awareness that our hearts are fundamentally the same, then my discernment has the capacity to be justice. If I can’t stand up to the judgement I would place on someone else, then my judgement isn’t just. This places the onus on me to constantly be discerning: if I were in their shoes, would I be able to bear the judgement I’m now feeling, or do I need to replace my righteous indignation with something gentler? This kind of justice requires the one doing the judging to place her- or himself in the shoes of everyone who stands before them, accused and accuser alike.
Earlier this year when a judge sentenced Stanford University student Brock Turner, accused of rape, to six months in jail because “a longer sentence would have a severe impact on him” (see the letter written by the rape victim) — that judge was able to feel empathy for the accused, but not for the accuser. Meanwhile there’s ample evidence that empathy is less frequently shown to people of color who are accused of crimes than to white people accused of those same crimes — too often empathy flows toward the accuser rather than the accused.
The verse that begins “צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף, / tzedek tzedek tirdof” — “Justice, justice shall you pursue!” — doesn’t end there. Torah continues, “in order that you may live and inherit the land which Adonai your God is giving you.” We pursue justice in order that we may truly live. In order to live life to its fullest, we need to work toward a world that is just, and thatrequires all of the empathy we can cultivate.
We’re approaching the Days of Awe, that season dedicated by Jewish tradition to the work of teshuvah, repentance or return. During the high holidays, we’re called to be conscious that every day we write the book of our lives with our choices, our actions, and our inactions. Could we ourselves stand the judging eye we often cast on others? Do we aspire to discern right from wrong in a way that places love and empathy at the center? The obligations of discernment and empathy fall on all of us. We must pursue them in order to truly live.
From the Hebrew College
“If you see something, sing something.”
Parshat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Rabbi Minna Bromberg
“What are you writing about?” my mother asks. And I grumble at her because I’m sure that talking about it will only reveal how thoroughly undeveloped my thinking really is. But then I remember that — even though I am sitting in her house and using her computer — I am, in fact, a grown up and she is, in fact, someone who is often helpful and insightful. And so I tell her that I want to write about this verse that has long fascinated me: “When you go into battle…you shall not be afraid” (Deuteronomy 20:1). Something about it rings a bell with me, but I can’t quite figure out what.
“For one thing,” I continue, “is it a commandment (thou shalt not be afraid) or a promise (you won’t be afraid)? And either way, how is that supposed to work?” My mother nods. “Anyway, this time, when I read the verse I see that I wasn’t remembering the whole thing. It actually starts, ‘When you go out to battle against your enemies and see horse and chariot,’ or in Hebrew ‘sus v’rechev….’
“Is that like ‘Ozi v’zimrat Yah?’” my mother asks. She is referencing part of a verse from the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18) — the song the Children of Israel sang on their way from slavery to freedom when they had been saved from Pharoah and his forces.
“Funny you should say that,” I answered. I was both delighted and a bit startled. The verse in Deuteronomy says “horse and chariot” while the Song of the Sea opens with the verse, “I will sing to YHVH, Who is exalted, the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea.” My mother immediately picked up on the resonance between these two distant verses, and she is not the only one. For centuries, commentators have been reading these verses as connected.
The most obvious point of connection is that the words sound similar in Hebrew; horse and chariot is “sus v’rechev” and horse and his rider is “sus v’rochvo.” Commentators on each of these verses have also been curious about another feature they share: in both verses the words are in the singular. In other words, the Song of the Sea, translated literally, imagines God throwing a single horse and rider into the sea. And Deuteronomy’s commandment (or promise) that we shall not be afraid has us setting out and seeing a single horse and chariot on the battlefield.
Midrash Tanchuma (a commentary that many scholars believe is from the 9th century CE) reads the words “the horse and his rider” (Exodus 15:1) and exclaims “Was there only one horse?!?…Has it not already been stated that he [i.e. Pharoah] took six hundred chariots [as we read in Exodus 14:7]?!?” Rather, the Tanhuma explains, those six hundred chariots were as insignificant to God as if they were a single horse and rider. “As in the verse,” the midrash continues, “‘When you go out to battle against your enemies and see horse and chariot…’ All the horses were considered by Him as one in this instance as well.”
So, the words sound similar and similarly strange: they are singular when we’d expect them to be plural. And this gives rise to the interpretive reading of each verse to mean that in God’s eyes many horses would be as insignificant an obstacle as only one. But when my mother heard our verse from Deuteronomy, telling us “when you go into battle…you shall not be afraid….” she was immediately reminded of a song we sing about a past victory. And this reinforced for me an idea I’d been playing with: the resonance of the verse in Deuteronomy with the line from the Song of the Sea underscores the message of “you shall not be afraid.”
We can actually take the verse and read it this way: “When you go out to do battle against your enemies and you see their horses and their chariots, let ‘sus v’rechev’ be a reminder to you of the Song of the Sea and the horse and rider God threw into the sea. Let this fearsome vision itself start you singing that song of courage as you stand up to this overwhelming force. This song you have carried with you across the generations can now carry you and help you feel that God, the One who brought you out from slavery to freedom, is with you.”
In Parashat Shoftim, where our verse comes from, Moses is continuing his teachings to the Children of Israel in preparation for their entering the Promised Land without him. Neither he nor any of the generation who experienced liberation from slavery firsthand will be with this generation to guide them. Many of Moses’ teaching are rules about how to behave once they get to the Land. But he is also making sure that they remember the story of where they came from and all that their ancestors endured to allow them to make it to this point.
We too find ourselves now in challenging times, times that urge us to stand up for what we know to be right and stand against injustice and bigotry. Many of us feel that we are truly preparing for battle, if we are not already in the middle of it. My blessing for all of us is this: When you set out to take a stand against the forces of oppression (or even just when you read the news) and you see the faces and the symbols and the guns of those you oppose, let those fearsome sights themselves remind you of the songs that have been sung by people of all faiths and traditions as they marched and protested and resisted. These songs are the legacy of those who have gone before us. We have carried them with us so that they can carry us. Sing out and feel the courage growing inside you to do what needs to be done.
From My Jewish Learning
Why the Torah equates human life with the life of a tree.
BY RABBI MATTHEW V. SOFFER
This week’s Torah portion is a touchstone text within Jewish environmentalism, as it contains the commandment “not to destroy” trees in the field (“bal taschit”). Eventually, throughout Jewish legal history, it evolves into the broader concept of not wasting our natural resources. In this portion God tells the Israelites that while amid the military operations of conquest, they must not destroy any fruit-bearing trees. One may clearly deduce the practicality of this law, but the reasoning is rather peculiar, raising more questions than it answers.
The text reads:
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Ki haadam eitz hasadeh lavo mipanecha? Is the tree of the field human to withdrawal before you into the besieged city?” (Deuteronomy 20:19)
What an odd rhetorical question, not to mention a puzzling explanation for a commandment and grist for generations of fascinating Torah commentary. Our tradition’s great interpreters treated the Torah not merely as some kind of rule book, nor a myth of origin, but as a canvas upon which to paint their own ultimate questions.
The 13th-century grammarian Ibn Ezra painted upon the canvas a distinct interpretation of the verse — that it is, not as a question at all, but rather a statement: “Ki Haadam eitz hasadeh, the human being is a tree of the field.” According to Ibn Ezra, by equating human life with the life of a tree, the destruction of that tree is tantamount to the destruction of human life. By extension, the protection or sparing of that tree equates with protecting or affirming human life.
Another 13th-century Spanish work, Sefer HaChinuch, further explains:
The purpose of this mitzvah [bal tashchit] is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive…. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world… Not so are the wicked, who….rejoice in the destruction … and are destroying themselves.” (Sefer HaChinuch, #529)
For Sefer HaChinuch, not destroying a tree is about embodying the attitude that we should regret any destruction we see and prevent any destruction we can prevent. To choose otherwise, he argues, is what defines people as evil, not to mention self-destructive.
Our mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) — which in this season leading up to the High Holy Days we might translate to mean, “our obligations to humanity and God” — challenge us to pay attention to the ultimate encounter with life itself. Every human being is a powerful variable in constant vacillation between forces of destruction and creation.
There’s a beautiful Hasidic teaching that says there are five most important mitzvot in the entire Jewish tradition, and the first is actually from this week’s portion:
Tamim tihiyeh. Be wholehearted with God. (Deuteronomy 18:13)
Shiviti Adonai. Always place God before you. (Psalms 16:8)
V’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha. Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
B’chol drachecha da’eihu. Wherever you go recognize God. (Proverbs 3:6)
Hatzneia lechet im Elohecha. Walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
Together these five teachings constitute a gestalt, in the form of an acrostic. The first letter of each of those teachings — Tov, Shin, Vav, Vet, Heh — spell the Hebrew word, teshuvah, the Jewish concept of Return or Repentance.
This week we begin the month of Elul , the month in which we practice behaviors urging us to return to our holiest selves.
Our Torah portion calls out: “The human being is the tree of the field!”
Are we helping or hurting? Are we using words lovingly or harshly? Are we helping ourselves grow or cutting ourselves down?
Midrash Rabbah teaches that every blade of grass has its own angel, nudging it from heaven and whispering to it, “Grow, grow.”
Welcome to the month of Elul: A season in which we, like blades of grass — like the tree of the field — return again, moving toward creation, as our tradition whispers to us: Grow.
Rabbi Jane Kanarek
“Imma, you’re not being fair!” complains my eldest son as he fights with his middle brother over who gets to choose stickers first. “Imma,” says my middle son, “you always let him choose first!” “Work it out!” interjects their father. “I want them first,” chimes in the youngest. It is a classic parental dilemma: do I make the judgment about who gets the stickers first or do I wait and let them argue until they compromise? Should I be the judge or should I by the mediator?
The Torah portion Shoftim commands Israel to establish judges and magistrates wherever they should live. The Talmud, as is its way, explicates the details of judging. How many judges are necessary to render a verdict? How do we account for and protect against the bias of judges? What are the criteria by which we appoint judges? How do we ensure that judges are just? Yet judging is not the only way that the Talmud imagines resolving conflicts between disputants. It also imagines mediation as a technique for conflict resolution. Although this passage begins by condemning mediation, it concludes by praising it:
Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yosi the Galilean says: It is forbidden to mediate [a dispute], and anyone who mediates [a dispute] is a sinner. And anyone who blesses the mediator curses God. And about this it is said, “The grasping man reviles and scorns the Lord (Psalms 10:3).” Rather, let judgment pierce the mountain. As it is said, “Because judgment is God’s.” And thus Moses would say, “Let judgment pierce the mountain.” But Aaron loved peace and chased peace and would establish peace between people. As it is said, “The teaching of truth was on his mouth, and falsehood was not heard on his lips. With peace and uprightness he walked with Me, and turned many away from iniquity” (Malachi 2:16).
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 6bAs the lawgiver, the one who received Torah from God at Sinai and gave it to Israel, Moses becomes the paradigmatic judge. As the one who chases peace and loves peace, Aaron, Moses’ brother, becomes the paradigmatic mediator. Moses declares, “Let judgment pierce the mountain.” For Moses, it appears, strict judgment—judgment that is strong enough to cut through even a mountain—is the ideal. Aaron’s view is quite different. According to the talmudic commentator Rashi, when Aaron would hear two people arguing, he would chase after them to put peace between them before they came to court. For Aaron, mediation required his active intervention in people’s disputes.
The imagery of “let justice pierce the mountain” might lead us to say that Moses’ way, to move through whatever is in his path, is the way of truth. The goal of mediation, on the other hand, is peace, an agreement which may come at the expense of truth. However, the Talmudic passage belies this claim. For it concludes by quoting a verse from the prophet Malachi that reads truth into Aaron’s actions: “The teaching of truth was on his mouth.” Truth, the Talmud teaches us, does not necessarily lie in some absolute calculation of right and wrong or blame and innocence. Rather, the process of meditation, of seeking peace between two people, is itself a path and process of truth. Truth may also lie in turning from the conflict of court and pursuing compromise. It is for this reason that another sage, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha declares that it is a commandment to mediate.
Perhaps, then, we should learn to recognize when we need to operate in the mode of Moses, issuing clear rulings, and when we need to operate in the mode of Aaron, chasing compromise. We might stop seeing compromise as achieving neither truth nor judgment but rather as a truth unto itself and, in the process, learn to walk with God.
A Diligent Inquiry
BY Rabbi MALKA STRASBERG EDINGER
The main theme in this week’s parashah, Parashat Shofetim, is justice. One of the many legal matters discussed is false witnesses. Deuteronomy 19:16–20 reads:
If an unrighteous witness rise up against anyone to bear perverted witness against him; then both people, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before Hashem, before the priests and the judges that shall be in those days. And the judges shall inquire diligently; and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and has testified falsely against the other; then you shall do to him, as he had purposed to do to the other; so you shall put away the evil from the midst of you. And those that remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil in your midst.
The law of retaliation as a punishment for false witnesses is also found in the Code of Hammurabi, a law code from 18th-century BCE Babylonia.
If a man bears false witness in a case . . . if that case is case involving life, that man shall be put to death.
If a man bears false witness concerning grain or money, he shall himself bear the penalty imposed in the case.
False testimony is also one of the major themes in the book of Susanna, an Apocryphal book dating to the Second Temple period. In this story, the pious Susanna was falsely accused by two lustful elders of the community of having an affair, the punishment for which was death (per Lev. 20:10 and Deut. 22:22). The public believed the false testimony of the elders, since they were respected members of the community who held high positions. But before Susanna was put to death, she cried out to God, who sent the young, but wise, Daniel to save her. Daniel publicly examined each witness separately, and elicited differing information from them as to the details of their concocted story. As a result, “according to the law of Moses, [the community] did to [the two false witnesses] in such sort as they maliciously intended to do to [Susanna], and they put them to death” (v. 62). Susanna was almost wrongly put to death because no one initially “inquired diligently,” as prescribed in Deuteronomy 19:18 above. However, once Daniel examined the witnesses closely and found them to be lying, Susanna was exonerated, and the law of retaliation for false witnesses was implemented.
Parashat Shofetim is not the only time that the Torah prohibits bearing false witness. It was first prohibited at Mt. Sinai; not bearing false witness is one of the Ten Commandments, listed both in Exodus 20:16 and Deuteronomy 5:20. (Some versions of the Bible register these verses as Exod. 20:12 and Deut. 5:16.) The prohibition is then repeated in the Covenant Code, in Exodus 23:1. It is also featured in the Wisdom Literature of Proverbs 6:16–19, within a list of abominations that God hates.
At first glance, it might appear that the Bible repeats the injunction numerous times in order to indicate the severity of the sin. But the text in this week’s parashah actually offers a component that is absent in the other texts. Here the Torah does not just prohibit witnesses from lying, but it specifically commands the judges to do their due diligence in seeking out the truthfulness of testimony presented before them. The importance of this careful examination of witnesses is highlighted in the story of Susanna. It is discussed at great length in the Talmud in tractates Makkot and Sanhedrin, and it is reinforced in Pirkei Avot, where Shimon ben Shetah says: “Examine the witnesses thoroughly” (1:9).
Judges render legal decisions based upon sworn testimony of witnesses. Should a judge condemn a defendant to an unjust verdict based upon false testimony, it would be easy for that judge to claim that they are not responsible for the incorrect verdict, since it was a correct decision based on the information at hand. It would be easy for that judge to wash their hands of responsibility, claiming that their hands spilled no blood. The Torah therefore teaches us that judges cannot accept testimony, even sworn testimony, as truthful without inquiring diligently as to its veracity. People’s lives are affected by, and sometimes even dependent upon, legal decisions, and they deserve to have the judge take the extra step in determining the truthfulness of even sworn testimony. For this reason, the Mishnah says that the more one examines witnesses, the more praiseworthy it is (Sanhedrin 5:2).
Although not all of us are court judges, we all find ourselves in positions where we can, and frequently do, judge others. The lesson of Deut. 19:18, vedareshu hashofetim hetev, “inquiring diligently,” need not only apply in court. In every social situation it is incumbent on all of us to seek out the truthfulness of information with which we are presented before acting or forming our own opinions based on those reports. Especially in the age of social media, where it is easy to write publicly first and reflect thoughtfully later, we must be careful not to react to information hastily without first inquiring diligently. Even though we could blame others for misleading us, it is still our responsibility to verify facts if we are to accept them and act upon them.
PLURALISM: DOES IT DESERVE THE DEATH PENALTY?
Let’s say you’re an advocate. Because traditions develop all over the world. Different rituals, liturgies, and customs awaken different parts of the human spirit. Thus, you think, we can learn from everyone.
Let’s say you support multiculturalism. Cultural communities should educate their youth. Listen to their young adults. Encourage local creativity. Celebrate regional pluralism.
And, let’s say, you try to be antiracist. You oppose the death penalty. People impose it unfairly. And, because it’s final, you can’t correct mistakes.
Let’s say, you’re me.
You love Torah. And you want it to support religious pluralism. But, you’re not sure it does. Because, here you are, chanting aloud these verses of Torah.
If there is found among you, in one of the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who has affronted the LORD your God and transgressed His covenant — turning to the worship of other gods and bowing down to them, to the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host, something I never commanded — and you have been informed or have learned of it, then you shall make a thorough inquiry.
If it is true, the fact is established, that abhorrent thing was perpetrated in Israel, you shall take the man or the woman who did that wicked thing out to the public place, and you shall stone them, man or woman, to death. — A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses; he must not be put to death on the testimony of a single witness. — Let the hands of the witnesses be the first against him to put him to death, and the hands of the rest of the people thereafter. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst (Deuteronomy 17:2-7, NJPS translation).
Yikes! Let’s say these verses break your heart. Can you find a way to read them and stay whole? Here are some options.
Look away. Ignore how awful this all sounds. Instead, point how great it is. Why, it’s a strong example of criminal justice reform! You can’t execute someone for heresy without two or three witnesses.
Accept the past. Torah isn’t a history in a modern sense. But it’s the only history we have. And it’s an honest history, recording the best and the worst of the early Israelites. Some of their laws were harsh. Maybe as brutal as in today’s worst regimes.
Recognize a political position. Does this sound like a repressive crackdown on pluralism? Maybe because it is. Or so the Book of Kings suggests. King Josiah is about to centralize political and religious power. Then, he learns of a new book of Torah. It says: there’s only one way, one shrine, one supreme court. Do whatever it takes to standardize. So, some scholars say, Josiah’s book is the one we know as Devarim (Deuteronomy).
Spiritualize the text. “Thus,” the section concludes, “you shall sweep out evil from your midst.” The Hebrew word for “your midst,” b’kirbekha, also means “inside you.” So, the verses are really about an inner process. Turn on your inner witness and observe yourself. Do your habits and impulses lead you away from God? Look once, twice, three times; let your inner witness lead. Then, one step at a time, tear those habits down.
Find biblical allies. Remember: you are not the first pluralism advocate. Or the first death penalty critic. You know the sun, moon, and stars inspire awe. Obviously, some ancient Israelites thought so too. So, where’s the alternate response? It’s in Psalm 19. Part One celebrates the beauty of sunrise. And shows how it points to the Creator God. Part Two gushes about the beauty of God’s Torah. Then, part three invites quiet spiritual reflection.
So, the Psalm teaches, if people love the sun, don’t execute them. Instead, educate them. Show them that nature, text, and soul all reveal God. And that pluralism awakens us more fully.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Shofetim
By: Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Do Not Let Your Heart Falter
This week’s Torah reading records that before going out to battle, the Israelite troops would gather together to hear from their leaders. The generals would give the orders, and then a priest would step forward and bless the assembled soldiers. He would say to them:
“Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your heart falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is the Adonai your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory” (Deuteronomy 20:3-4).
For all of recorded human history, one of the functions of religious leaders has been to give sacred sanction to warfare. Clergy of all varieties have inspired young men to fight, and often to die, on behalf of their nation or their God. Sermons like the one presented in Deuteronomy were meant to stiffen spines and harden hearts, to inspire bravery in battle and reassure the troops that victory is inevitable because they fight “with God on their side.”
One of my favorite Torah commentators is Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), known as the Netziv, whose beautifully written commentary Haemek ha-Dvar (“The Depths of the Word”) is notable for its often stunningly subversive re-readings of the text. Writing on this passage, the Netziv adds his audacious spin on the line, “Do not let your heart falter” (Deuteronomy 20:3). He says: “Do not let your heart falter… to cause you to do wrong to your enemies, after they fall into your hands.”
In an instant, the priest’s role is transformed from exhorting the troops to be fearless in battle, to warning them of the moral pitfalls of unchecked aggression. Warfare, even in the most justified of circumstances, is always an ethically fraught undertaking. Religion’s proper role in it, the Netziv says, is to teach responsibility and restraint rather than inspire ferocity. We all have battles to be fought, some literal and some metaphorical, and in all cases, it is incumbent upon us not to lose our humanity in the process, lest we become exactly what we are fighting against.
Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days, during which this parsha is read, is a period of deep self-reflection. In it, we are invited to examine our actions, our motivations, and our shortcomings. We are cautioned to check in with ourselves to ensure that we are listening to the better angels of our nature.
The Netziv’s re-reading of this parsha is a powerful example of the inner work that we are called to do during this time. He teaches us that even when it appears that right thing to do is to harden our heart, we are to remember that that is the way of Pharaoh, not the way of holiness. Our job is to keep our hearts open and pliable, to fight our battles but not lose our compassion, to do what the moment demands without succumbing to the temptation to abandon our values. That’s how we enter into this time of transformation. That’s what it means to keep our heart from faltering.
The Ecological Imperative
In the course of setting out the laws of war, the Torah adds a seemingly minor detail that became the basis of a much wider field of human responsibility, and is of major consequence today. The passage concerns a military campaign that involves laying siege to a city:
When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an axe to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls. (Deut. 20:19–20)
War is, the Torah implies, inevitably destructive. That is why Judaism’s highest value is peace. Nonetheless, there is a difference between necessary and needless destruction. Trees are a source of wood for siege works. But some trees, those that bear fruit, are also a source of food. Therefore, do not destroy them. Do not needlessly deprive yourself and others of a productive resource. Do not engage in a “scorched earth” tactic in the course of war.
The Sages, though, saw in this command something more than a detail in the laws of war. They saw it as a binyan av, a specific example of a more general principle. They called this the rule of bal tashchit, the prohibition against needless destruction of any kind. This is how Maimonides summarises it: “Not only does this apply to trees, but also whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, destroys a building, blocks a wellspring of water, or destructively wastes food, transgresses the command of bal tashchit.” This is the halachic basis of an ethic of ecological responsibility.
What determines whether a biblical command is to be taken restrictively or expansively? Why did the Sages take this seemingly minor law to build out a wide halachic field? What led the Sages in the direction they took?
The simplest answer lies in the word “Torah”. It means law. But it also means: teaching, instruction, direction, guidance. The Torah is a lawbook like no other, because it includes not only laws but also narratives, genealogies, history, and song. Law as the Torah conceives it is embedded in a larger universe of meanings. Those meanings help us understand the context and purpose of any given law.
So it is here. First and foremost is the fact that the earth is not ours. It belongs to its Creator, to God Himself. That is the point of the first chapter of the Torah: “In the beginning, God created…” He made it; therefore He is entitled to lay down the conditions within which we live in it as His guests.
The logic of this is immediately played out in the story of the very first humans. In Genesis 1 God commands humanity: “Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (1:28). “Subdue” and “rule” are verbs of dominance. In Genesis 2, however, the text uses two quite different verbs. God placed the first man in the Garden “to serve it [le’ovdah] and guard it [leshomrah]” (2:15). These belong to the language of responsibility. The first term, le’ovdah, tells us that humanity is not just the master but also the servant of nature. The second, leshomrah, is the term used in later biblical legislation to specify the responsibilities of one who undertakes to guard something that is not their own.
How are we to understand this tension between the two opening chapters? Quite simply: Genesis 1 tells us about creation and nature, the reality mapped by the natural sciences. It speaks about humanity as the biological species, Homo sapiens. What is distinctive about humans as a species is precisely our godlike powers of dominating nature and exercising control of the forces that shape the physical world. This is a matter of fact, not value, and it has increased exponentially throughout the relatively short period of human civilisation. As John F. Kennedy put it in his inaugural presidential address: “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” Power is morally neutral. It can be used to heal or wound, build or destroy.
Genesis 2, by contrast, is about morality and responsibility. It tells us about the moral limits of power. Not everything we can do may we do. We have the power but not the permission; we have the ability but not the right. The earth is not ours. It belongs to God who made it. Therefore we are not the owners of nature but its custodians. We are here to serve it and care for it.
This explains the story that immediately follows, about Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the forbidden fruit. What the fruit was, why the serpent spoke, and what was the nature of the first sin – all these are secondary. The primary point the Torah is making is that, even in paradise, there are limits. There is forbidden fruit. Not everything we can do may we do.
Few moral principles have been forgotten more often and more disastrously. The record of human intervention in the natural order is marked by devastation on a massive scale. Within a thousand years, the first human inhabitants of America had travelled from the Arctic north to the southernmost tip of Patagonia, making their way through two continents and, on the way, destroying most of the large mammal species then extant, among them mammoths, mastodons, tapirs, camels, horses, lions, cheetahs, and bears.
When the first British colonists arrived in New Zealand in the early nineteenth century, bats were the only native land mammals they found. They discovered, however, traces of a large, ostrich-like bird the Maoris called “moa.” Eventually skeletons of a dozen species of this animal came to light, ranging from three to ten feet high. The remains of some twenty-eight other species have been found, among them flightless ducks, coots, and geese together with pelicans, swans, ravens, and eagles. Animals that have not had to face human predators before are easy game, and the Maoris must have found them a relatively effortless source of food.
A similar pattern can be traced almost everywhere human beings have set foot. They have consistently been more mindful of the ability to “subdue” and “rule” than of the responsibility to “serve” and “guard.” An ancient Midrash sums this up, in a way that deeply resonates with contemporary ecological awareness: When God made Adam, He showed him the panoply of creation and said to him: “See all My works, how beautiful they are. All I have made, I have made for you. Take care, therefore, that you do not destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one left to mend what you have destroyed.”
Environmental responsibility seems to be one of the principles underlying the three great commands of periodic rest: Shabbat, the Sabbatical year, and the Jubilee year. On Shabbat all agricultural work is forbidden, “so that your ox and your donkey may rest” (Ex. 23:12). It sets a limit to our intervention in nature and the pursuit of economic growth. We remind ourselves that we are creations, not just creators. For six days the earth is handed over to us and our labours, but on the seventh we may perform no “work,” namely, any act that alters the state of something for human purposes. Shabbat is thus a weekly reminder of the integrity of nature and the limits of human striving.
What Shabbat does for humans and animals, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years do for the land. The earth too is entitled to its periodic rest. The Torah warns that if the Israelites do not respect this, they will suffer exile: “Then shall the land make up for its Sabbatical years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its Sabbath years” (Lev. 26:34). Behind this are two concerns. One is environmental. As Maimonides points out, land which is overexploited eventually erodes and loses its fertility. The Israelites were therefore commanded to conserve the soil by giving it periodic fallow years, not pursuing short-term gain at the cost of long-term desolation. The second, no less significant, is theological: “The land,” says God, “is Mine; you are but strangers and temporary residents with Me” (Lev. 25:23). We are guests on earth.
Another set of commands is directed against over-interference with nature. The Torah forbids crossbreeding livestock, planting a field with mixed seeds, and wearing a garment of mixed wool and linen. These rules are called chukim or “statutes.” Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808–1888) in the nineteenth century, like Nachmanides six centuries earlier, understood chukim to be laws that respect the integrity of nature. They represent the principle that “the same regard which you show to man you must also demonstrate to every lower creature, to the earth which bears and sustains all, and to the world of plants and animals.” They are a kind of social justice applied to the natural world: “They ask you to regard all living things as God’s property. Destroy none; abuse none; waste nothing; employ all things wisely…. Look upon all creatures as servants in the household of creation.”
So it was no accident that Jewish law interpreted the prohibition against cutting down fruit-bearing trees in the course of war as an instance of a more general prohibition against needless destruction, and more generally still, against acts that deplete earth’s non-renewable resources, or damage the ecosystem, or lead to the extinction of species.
Václav Havel made a fundamental point in The Art of the Impossible: “I believe that we have little chance of averting an environmental catastrophe unless we recognise that we are not the masters of Being, but only a part of Being.” That is why a religious vision is so important, reminding us that we are not owners of our resources. They belong not to us but to the Eternal and eternity. Hence we may not needlessly destroy. If that applies even in war, how much more so in times of peace. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Ps. 24:1). We are its guardians, on behalf of its Creator, for the sake of future generations.
Engage All Texts
At a time when Jewish influence has increased, how do we approach unethical commandments?
BY DANIEL SEPTIMUS
Parashat Shoftim begins with the command to appoint judges to execute mishpat tzedek, righteous judgment (Deuteronomy 16:18). Two verses later comes the biblical principle perhaps most frequently cited by activists: “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gave you (Deuteronomy 16:18).”
It’s not only judges who are responsible for maintaining an ethical judicial system. Shoftim also delineates the rules of legal testimony, which presume innocence and seek to ensure that witnesses be corroborated and accountable. The Talmud expands upon these laws and views this area of social/civil justice as a matter of concern for the divine.
Three the Holy One hates: him who says one thing with his mouth and another in his heart; him who possesses evidence in favor of his neighbor but fails to testify on his behalf; and him who, seeing something improper in his neighbor, acts as the sole witness against him. (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 113b)
Parshat Shoftim goes on to describe other laws meant to facilitate ethical society, laws that protect people from the capricious use of violence and power.
Dealing with Enemies
In a ruling often cited by progressive Jews, Parashat Shoftim, in its laws of war, commands the Israelites to offer its enemies the opportunity to surrender peacefully before the attack. But a thorough reading of these laws of military engagement reveals a problem with a pacifistic interpretation of Parshat Shoftim: What happens if the enemies of the Israelites accept the terms of peace?
“If they respond peacefully and let you in, all the people present there shall serve you as forced labor.” (Deuteronomy 20:11) Turning your enemies into forced laborers may be a better alternative than killing them, but it can hardly be deemed progressive.
Additionally, the mandate to extend terms of peace only applies to so-called “optional wars.” When it comes to “commanded wars,” including the conquest of Canaan, no offer of peace is to be extended, and no living person — man, woman, or child — is to be left alive (Deuteronomy 20:11).
Difficulties in the Text
The call for a just court system at the beginning of the Torah portion is also far from simple. While the Torah articulates clear guidelines in support of judicial impartiality and fairness — for example, explicitly prohibiting judges from giving preferential treatment and taking bribes–there is no indication that the Torah extends “tzedek tzedek tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue” beyond the courts to social justice.
Even more challenging to progressive sensibilities, judges and officers were expected to enforce religious law, not just civil and criminal law. In a stark articulation of this requirement, Sefer HaChinuch, a medieval commentary on the 613 commandments, explains the job of the shoftim and shotrim as follows:
To appoint judges and officers who should enforce the observance of the mitzvot of the Torah, and should return to it, against their will, those who stray from the path of truth…For with this method we can establish our religious system of law, while fear of our officers and judges is cast over the mass population.
According to Sefer HaChinuch, the commandment to appoint judges and officers is aimed at establishing a society ruled by religious law with enforcement that generates fear among its citizens. Hardly a pre-modern form of constitutional liberalism!
Dealing with Unethical Teachings
None of this is new, of course. We are all aware that when we turn to Jewish tradition for teachings that inspire us to work for social justice, we often turn a blind eye to texts that can inspire the opposite: religious paternalism, inequality, brutal forms of capital punishment, and yes, even race-based genocide.
But is this okay? Can we credibly cite Jewish teachings that encourage a better world when there exist parallel teachings that could lead to a worse one? I think yes, but only with these conditions: that we are honest about which texts we are excluding from active duty and that we study not only those traditions that promote our social agendas, but those that contradict it–because neglected texts left unattended have a nasty way of coming back to life in more virulent forms.
A Modern Approach
Historically, Jews have not had to worry too much about our racist and anti-social texts because we, as a corporate entity, have not had power. The existence of the State of Israel and the influence wielded by Jews in America and elsewhere in the Diaspora has changed this and upped the ethical ante.
Parashat Shoftim is the perfect reminder that scattered amongst Judaism’s most noble and righteous teachings are passages that are anachronistic at best and immoral at worst. We must identify these teachings — biblical, rabbinic, medieval and modern. As we engage texts that inspire us to pursue social justice, we must, at the same time, engage those that can inspire violence and oppression.
Whether we condemn these texts or merely note their difficulty, they are our responsibility. If we ignore them and fail to forge communal opinions about them, we risk the possibility of them being resurrected and reclaimed.
Perhaps we can see this consciousness-raising re-examination as the fulfillment of another famous command in Parshat Shoftim: U’Viarta HaRa mi’Kirbekha — You shall purge the evil from your midst.
Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.
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