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Torah Sparks

August 21, 2004 - 4 Elul 5764

Annual: Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1088; Hertz p. 820)
Triennial Cycle: Deuteronomy 19:14 - 21:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1099; Hertz p. 829)
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 - 52:12 (Etz Hayim, p. 1108; Hertz p. 835)

Prepared by Rabbi Naomi Levy
Author of To Begin Again and Talking to God

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Parasha Summary

Our Torah portion this Shabbat focuses on the administration of justice in Israel. Judges and courts are to be set up to determine justice and to enforce it. Judges and witnesses are warned against perverting justice in any way. Further on in the portion we learn about the kingship and the limits of the king's power. The rules of war are then delineated. At the end of our portion we learn about the case of a murder where the identity of the slayer is unknown.

Discussion Theme 1: Justice Doesn't Come Easy

"You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice... Justice, justice shall you pursue…" (Deut 16:18-20)

Derash: Study

  1. Do not think: What difference does it make if we pervert justice to acquit our friend or wrest the judgment of the poor or respect the person of the rich…. Consider what you do, and conduct yourselves in every judgment as if the Holy One were standing before you. (Rashi quoted in Plout, A Torah Commentary p 1462)
  2. Do not be lenient with your faults while judging harshly the same faults in others; do not overlook sin in yourself while demanding perfection of others. (Toledot Yaakov Yosef, Torah Gems p 252)
  3. In our daily Amidah we pray: "Restore our judges as at first." What is meant by "at first"? When a judge first takes the bench, he has the highest ideals and intentions, and seeks to serve justice and his people. However, as time passes, he often slackens in his concerns. We therefore pray that our judges should remain as they are at first. (Rabbi Shaul Yedidyah Eleazar Taub of Modzhitz, Gems p 253)
  4. This command is intended for the officials and communal leaders who are entrusted with the task of engaging rabbis. They must not believe that because they have appointed the rabbi they are exempt from giving him the respect and obedience due him. For the rabbi is appointed not only for the congregation or the community but "for yourself," for every individual, and you must heed his instructions, because only if you will give him the respect due him will he be able to judge the people with righteous judgment, only then will the people obey the rabbi and abide by his judgment. (K'lei Hemda, Wellsprings of Torah p 397)
  5. "Justice, justice" the double emphasis means: Justice under any circumstance, whether to your profit or loss, whether in word or in action, whether to Jew or non-Jew. It also means: Do not use unjust means to secure justice. (Bachya ben Asher quoted in Plout p 1462)
  6. This means that you must pursue justice with justice. The means by which you seek to attain justice must be righteous also. You must not allow yourself to be guided by the godless principle that the end justifies the means. (Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak of Przysucha, Wellsprings p 397)
  7. The Hatam Sofer focuses on the verse in Hosea (2:21) "I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and in justice, and in loving-kindness, and in mercy." The Midrash states that God supplies the loving-kindness and the mercy, while we must supply the righteousness and the justice. (Torah Gems p 251)

Questions for Discussion

  1. Try to describe a situation where it would be permissible for judges to bend the law?
  2. Do a life and time necessarily corrupt us? What measure can we take to remain idealistic and upright always?
  3. How does a synagogue board entrusted with the task of hiring a rabbi, reviewing a rabbi's work, setting the rabbi's salary prevent itself from viewing the rabbi as just one more employee to manage? Is it possible for this same board to revere its rabbi? What measures should a synagogue take to protect its rabbi's honor? Does your community worry about the age of your rabbi? Do you think a rabbi at 59 is wiser than a rabbi at 29? Or do you prefer a young rabbi who can attract young families?
  4. n what ways is the administration of justice a partnership between humanity and God?

Discussion Theme 2: Treasure Nature and Don't be Destructive

When in your war against a city… you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them…. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? In the Talmud the rabbis extended this prohibition to a principle called "Bal Tashchit" a prohibition against any senseless destruction.

Derash: Study

  1. Read Genesis (1:28). God offered nature to humanity to master it. However, the Torah does put limits on our treatment of the natural world.
  2. Sforno explains that the prohibition itself is a verse of encouragement to the Children of Israel as they face war: As a rule, when an army realizes that it will not win the victory and may have to retreat, it destroys whatever it finds in the enemy territory before retreating, in order to inflict as much loss as possible on the enemy. But if the army is sure that it will win and conquer the territory, it would not want to destroy any of the property there, because it may make use of it at a later time. Intending to assure the Jewish people of their ultimate victory, Scripture tells them not to destroy the trees because the Lord has promised you the land and you will be able to eat the fruit of these trees once you have settled the land. Why then should you inflict loss on your own people by destroying the vegetation of the country? (Wellsprings p 403)
  3. Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal tashchit. (Talmud Kiddushin 32a)
  4. Rambam: It is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees outside a besieged city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so that they wither… Not only one who cuts down trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food with destructive intent transgresses the command "you must not destroy." (Mishna Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8,10)
  5. The purpose of this mitzvah 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 and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who are like demons, who rejoice in destruction of the world, and they are destroying themselves. (Sefer Hachinuch 529)

Questions for Discussion

  1. How do we teach our children to treasure objects when they are surrounded by such plenty? How do we teach them to value their food, toys, and clothes? They watch us replace our cars, our computers, our cell phones at a staggering pace. How do we learn to appreciate what we have when we live in a disposable culture?
  2. Do you think the US government was mistaken in its widespread use of agent orange in Vietnam. Are you aware of human toll and the toll on the environment?
  3. Has your synagogue instituted a recycling policy? If not now, when?

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