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Torah Sparks

August 26, 2006 – 2 Elul 5766

Annual: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1088; Hertz p. 820)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 18:6 – 19:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 1094; Hertz p. 825)
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12 (Etz Hayim, p. 1108; Hertz p. 835)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


In this parasha, the book of Deuteronomy continues with a listing of a variety of laws and commandments that the Israelites are to follow. The major theme is political leadership. Israel is to appoint judges and officials to govern with pure justice. Bribes are forbidden. Within this portion is the famous directive, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Once again idolatry is severely condemned; those who worship idols are to be put to death.

The Israelites are permitted to appoint a king to serve as ruler over them, but an Israelite king must observe rules and limitations. He cannot be a foreigner; he may not have too many horses, too much gold and silver, or too many wives. And he must keep a copy of the scroll of the Torah with him. The portion continues with the laws for priests and details how to recognize a false prophet. There should be cities of refuge where a person who kills another person without forethought or intent can flee. It is forbidden to move another’s landmark and the testimony of just one witness is not valid.

The portion continues with the laws of war. The Israelites are told to be courageous, for God is with them. Even with that protection, participation in battle is not to be universal. A special priest was to address the troops, asking if there were among them a man who had built a house but not yet dedicated it, had planted a field but not yet harvested it, or been betrothed to a woman but not yet married to her. Such a man was allowed to return home from battle. Similarly, someone fainthearted was allowed to return home. When approaching a town for battle, the Israelites should first offer terms of peace, but there should be no mercy in dealing with the Canaanite nations. Finally the Israelites are told not to cut down the fruit trees -- this law became the basis of the rabbinic rulings that forbids wanton destruction.

The end of the portion contains the law detailing what is to be done if a corpse is found outside a town and the death is assumed to have been a murder or manslaughter, but no one knows who was responsible for the death. The elders of the nearest town would slaughter a heifer that had never been worked and the elders would say, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.” This strange law indicates that the leaders of a community have a responsibility for the safety of people who pass through.

Issue #1 - What is Justice?

“Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20)


  1. How should we define justice? And why is the word repeated in this verse? Justice --tzedek in Hebrew -- means absolute fairness. Justice means people getting precisely what they deserve, whether in a court of law or as delivered by society as a whole. Justice, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan, is when the punishment fits the crime. Justice means that in a civil case, a person receives precisely the damages that are appropriate. Justice means that in society, everybody has a fair chance. True justice is impartial. It favors neither the rich nor the poor. Jewish tradition is filled with stories of judges who remain absolutely impartial, blindly applying the law as appropriate.
  2. The prophet Amos said, “Let justice pour forth like water, righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). He went on to say, “And establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15). Amos was speaking to a society where unfairness reigned, where the rich and powerful took advantage of the poor and helpless. Whether through the courts or in society, it is clear that people did not receive what was appropriately and fairly coming to them. Amos’s words call for absolute justice echo even today.
  3. Yet, what if absolute justice is not fair or appropriate in specific cases? For example, perhaps one partner in a marriage has wronged the other, perhaps through committing adultery or some other improper act. The aggrieved partner might seek justice through the courts, hiring an attorney to destroy the partner who harmed the other, financially, emotionally, or both. Perhaps justice is on the wronged partner’s side. But if there are children involved, often the children become the victims of strict justice.
  4. The word justice is used twice because according to our tradition there is a second kind of justice. According to Jewish tradition, Aaron practiced that second kind of justice. He sought mediation, finding a fair middle ground that both sides could accept (Sanhedrin 32b). Both sides had to give a little. Clearly this is not absolute justice, so what kind of justice is it? Is this second type of justice closer to God’s ideal?

Issue #2 – What is Peace?

“When you approach a town to attack it you shall offer it terms of peace” (Deuteronomy 20:10)


  1. An entire chapter of this week’s portion deals with the laws of war. On the surface this is surprising. If the Torah is God’s word and if peace is God’s dream for humanity, why doesn’t the Torah outlaw war altogether? Why doesn’t the Torah simply command peace?
  2. Perhaps the answer is that the Torah was not given to angels, but to real human beings. It is guidance for living in the real world, today, not some perfect world of the future. We are not pacifists, and war is sometimes an evil necessity. Therefore, rather than legislate the impossible, the Torah gives guidance for the proper way to wage war. Before beginning to fight, the Torah requires that we should first offer terms of peace. Later rabbinic law teaches that the attacker was to keep an offer of peace open for at least three days, giving the enemy time to consider peace as an option. War is sometimes necessary; peace is always the dream. The book of Isaiah contains a vision of a future where the lion will lie down with the lamb, where peace shall reign even in the animal world.
  3. As the headlines which scream at us daily remind us, that is not the world we live in today. The prophet Jeremiah cried out, “Peace, peace, but there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). So the Torah teaches us how to conduct war in as ethical a way as possible, considering the cruelties and tragedies all war brings. Most important is the idea that there may be no war until first there have been overtures toward peace.
  4. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. Its root are the letters sh-l-m, which means complete. What does peace have to do with completeness? President John F. Kennedy said in his state of the union message the year he was assassinated, “The mere absence of war is not peace.” The best image of peace perhaps is a completed jigsaw puzzle, with all the pieces in their proper places. There is completeness there, a fitting together. Real peace is more than a cease-fire; it is a sense of wholeness, as if two parties, once enemies, now have found how to fit together in a way that maintains the dignity of each. Even living in a real world, how can we bring that dream closer?

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