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Torah Sparks

September 6, 2008 – 6 Elul 5768

Annual: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1088; Hertz p. 820)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 18:5 (Etz Hayim, p. 1088; Hertz p. 820)
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12 (Etz Hayim, p. 1108; Hertz p. 835)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

The Israelites are to appoint judges and officers in all their communities to insure the administration of justice.

It is forbidden to set up a sacred pillar like those used in idol worship, even if it is dedicated to God. Idolaters are to be put to death, but only after being convicted by the testimony of at least two witnesses.

There is to be a central higher court to hear cases deemed too difficult for local judges. Its decisions are binding.

If and when Israel establishes a monarchy, the king must make a copy of the Torah and keep it with him at all times, for the king also is subject to God’s laws.

The priests and Levites have no territory of their own and so must be supported by the agricultural dues paid by the members of the other tribes.

Sorcery in all its forms is forbidden. True prophets are to be obeyed but false prophets must be put to death.

After the Israelites have conquered the land and settled in it, they are to designate three cities of refuge to which a person who commits accidental manslaughter may flee and be safe from the relatives of the person he killed. These cities will provide no safety for the intentional murderer.

Rules of war and the treatment of enemies are given. The ritual of breaking the heifer’s neck – to be performed when a murder victim is found and the killer is unknown – is described.

1. Hekhsher Tzedek

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land the Lord your God is giving you. (Devarim 16:20)

  1. 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, 1765-1815, Poland)
  2. Hekhsher Tzedek has formulated its principles and standards in terms of five primary areas of corporate practice: wages and benefits, employee health and safety, product development policies, environmental impact, and corporate transparency and integrity. With the exception of the matter of transparency, which is material only in terms of the trust that can be given to the corporate responses and representations, each other area represents a substantial concern of the halakhah. While the details of the measurements imposed to assess any area are closely related to the data that are available to monitor that area, and will not necessarily correspond to the measures used in antiquity, the goals are clearly set out in halakhic materials from the Bible and throughout the development of Jewish law...

    In addition to insisting that kosher food manufacturers abide by the fullness of halakhic demands, Hekhsher Tzedek is also conceived as a tool for the Jewish consumer to be able to make righteous choices about their kosher eating which were never possible before. Like consumer ingredient and health information labeling, this is one more step toward putting into action the goals that God and the Torah have set for us, and toward which we strive.

    The first psalm begins and ends with these words: “Hurray for one who has not walked in the company of the wicked nor stood in the path of the sinful. . . for the Lord recognizes the path of the righteous.” We have a right, and we are right, to expect our coreligionists, our kosher food purveyors, to sanctify God’s name by their business practices and to allow, even to aid us in, the pursuit of righteousness. (Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, “Hekhsher Tzedek Al Pi Din”)
  3. The government says we can add non-meat fillers. We can’t. We’re kosher and have to answer to an even higher authority. (Hebrew National meats commercial, 1975)
  4. What does the Holy One care whether one ritually slaughters cattle and eats or whether one slaughters cattle by stabbing and eats it? Will some such thing benefit Him or harm Him?... Thus the commandments were given only to purify human beings. (Tanhuma Shemini 7)

Sparks for Discussion

Do the ends ever justify the means? Should a notorious violent criminal be sent to prison based on partially fabricated evidence? Should a doctor invent a diagnosis to get an insurance company to pay for a poor patient’s necessary but uncovered treatment?

The Conservative movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek initiative is based on the principle that producers of kosher food should follow kosher business practices. Do you believe that Jewish institutions and business involved in providing for Jewish needs should answer to a “higher authority”? Why? Some critics of Hekhsher Tzedek point out that raising wages and providing additional benefits to workers will raise the price of kosher food. That is likely, although some of the cost increases might be offset by more energy-efficient plants and processes and better training. Would you pay more for food that meets the standards of Hekhsher Tzedek? How much more – 5 percent? 10 percent? 20 percent?

2. Ordinary People

Moreover, he [the king] shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the Lord has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. (Devarim 17:16-17)

  1. Said Rabbi Isaac: Why were the reasons of some Biblical laws not revealed? Because in two verses, reasons were revealed and they caused the greatest in the world [Solomon] to stumble. Thus it is written: And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray, whereupon Solomon said: “I will have many wives and yet not let my heart go astray.” Yet we read in 1 Kings 11:4: “In his old age, his wives turned away Solomon’s heart after other gods.” Again it is written: He shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses. Concerning this Solomon said: “I will keep many horses, but will not cause Israel to return to Egypt.” Yet we read (1 Kings 10:29): “A chariot imported from Egypt cost 600 shekels of silver, and a horse 150.” (Sanhedrin 21b)
  2. You shall appoint [literally, appoint for you] magistrates and officials... (D’varim 16:18) For you, for yourself. First judge yourself and, using the same yardstick, judge others. 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. (Toldot Ya’akov Yosef [Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef Katz of Polonya, 1710-1782, Poland])
  3. A favorite saying of the rabbis of Yavneh was: I am a creature of God and my neighbor is also a creature of God. I work in the city and he works in the country. I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work. Just as he cannot excel in my work, I cannot excel in his work. Will you say that I do great things and he does small things? We have learned that it does not matter whether a person does much or little, as long as he directs his heart to heaven. (Berakhot 17a)

Sparks for Discussion

According to the passage from Sanhedrin, Solomon was tripped up by his belief that he was somehow not subject to the rules that applied to ordinary people. We all like to think that we are above average, that our superior knowledge, skills, and abilities will allow us to avoid dangers that would entrap others. For example, some people think that they can drink and drive because they are excellent drivers and know how to hold their liquor; perhaps you know people who believe rules are not made for them. What would happen if each person got to decide what laws, regulations, and mitzvot applied to him or herself? Is there anyone who is not ordinary?

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