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Torah Sparks

August 25, 2012 – 7 Elul 5772

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 Joseph H. Prouser
Temple Emanuel of North Jersey - Franklin Lakes, NJ

In what is likely its best known verse, parashat Shoftim provides its own synopsis: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” Judges of reliable character are to be appointed for all Israelite jurisdictions. The godliness of administering justice is contrasted with three prohibited idolatrous practices: the use of sacred posts, idolatrous stone pillars, and the sacrifice of blemished animals. Cases of apostasy are to be thoroughly investigated. This is the original context for a general principle of biblical law: no uncorroborated testimony is to be accepted. Only the testimony of two or more witnesses may be treated as dispositive. Major cases are brought “before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time.” The verdict of this high court is to be carried out in its every detail. Undermining justice by disregarding the verdict is itself a capital crime.

The appointment of an Israelite king is permitted within carefully prescribed parameters. The king must be an Israelite, not a foreigner. He may not amass untoward wealth, nor may he marry many wives. The king, too, is subject to the law: he must write (or, some say, commission) a scroll of God’s law, to be kept with him throughout his reign. The levitical priests, too, are defined by both perquisites and restrictions. They have no territorial inheritance among the tribes; the tribes provide for them through sacrificial offerings and related emoluments.

A variety of abhorrent and idolatrous practices, attributed to Canaan’s indigenous population, are forbidden the Israelites: child sacrifice, witchcraft and sorcery in its various forms, and necromancy – inquiring of the dead. Unlike the practitioners of these banned activities, Israel must be “wholehearted” in its service and worship of God. The religious duty to heed the words of God’s prophets is prescribed, as is the analogous commandment to identify and eschew the false prophet.

The distinction between unintentional homicide (manslaughter without malice aforethought) and premeditated murder is central to Israelite criminal law, and cities of refuge are to be provided for hapless perpetrators of manslaughter. This is necessary because of the institution of blood vengeance by a relative of the victim – even though manslaughter carried no death penalty, bereaved family members would summarily and with impunity kill anyone responsible for a loved one’s death. Premeditated murder, however, is punishable by death.

False witnesses are subject to the penalty that would have befallen the accused, in both capital and noncapital cases. The prohibition against moving a neighbor’s property markers is an analogous safeguard against people who would deprive others of their legal rights and immunities.

Laws about warfare follow: the priestly exhortation of combatants and announcement of deferments from military duty; the obligation to offer terms of peaceful surrender before attacking a city; the inapplicability of this provision to indigenous Canaanites, who are to be proscribed; the law against destroying a besieged city’s trees, which later is expanded into a general prohibition against wanton destruction of any useful resource. The final provision of the parashah is the legal and expiatory ritual response to an unsolved murder.

Theme #1: “Prophet Margin”

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like me; him shall you heed.” (Deuteronomy 18:15)

Study: Derash

“Moses served as the model for all later prophets, even though no prophet has as close contact with God as he did… The Hebrew speaks of the prophet in the masculine, as this is the linguistic default; but that does not exclude female prophets. The Bible refers to four female prophets by name: Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (II Kings 22:14-20), and Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14); other passages mention unnamed female prophets (Isaiah 8:3; Ezekiel 13:17; Joel 3:1).” (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)

“The prophets appear to me as an unrepeatable phenomenon. Men of great intellectual and literary gifts, who attained profound moral and religious insights, they were not yet sicklied o’er with the pale cast either of theological speculation or of psychological introspection.” (Rabbi Bernard Bamberger)

“We would like our children to know that if they burn with righteous indignation, if they have the true feeling of brotherhood, if they place humanity high in their scale of values, if they despise hypocrisy, if they are impatient with poverty and corruption, if they are frantic at the slow pace of social reform and the complacency of their elders, at such times to know that they are in the company of men like Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel.” (Rabbi Sheldon Blank)

“Let the Holy Spirit (ruach ha-kodesh) rest upon them. If they (the People Israel) are not prophets, they are the sons of prophets.” (Hillel – see BTalmud Shabbat, Tosefta Pesachim, etc.)

“I tell you in truth: all men are Prophets or else God does not exist.” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

Questions for Discussion

Has the role of the Israelite prophet outlived its usefulness (see Rabbi Bamberger)? Or are Moses and his prophetic successors still suitable religious role models for today’s Jews (a la Rabbi Blank)? Or all human beings (as per Sartre)? Do we all have a potential for prophetic spirit (as Hillel seems to imply)… or is this gift reserved for rare spiritual giants?

What is the primary function of the Israelite prophet? Foretelling the future? Addressing social and spiritual ills? Binding fellow Jews to the purposes of God? If the latter, how does the prophet differ from the priest addressing Israelite troops prior to battle (see below, especially Rabbi Plaut)?

Are the prophets (male and female) the Biblical characters to whose example we would most want our children to aspire? What did their prophetic missions mean to their personal lives - their families – their happiness? Who are the heroes (and, especially, heroines) of the Bible whose “company” we want our children to share? Might Israeli parents answer this question differently than those living in North America?

Why did Moses specify that God’s prophet would be “from among your own people” – i.e., an Israelite? What concerns might this reflect? How are we to relate to “prophetic” thinkers of other faiths and nations?

Theme #2: “Praise the Lord and Pass the Amunition”

“Before you join battle, the priest shall come forward and address the troops. He shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is the Lord your God who marches with you, to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory.” (Deuteronomy 20:2-4)

Study: Derash

“Even if your only spiritual merit is reciting the Shema, for this alone you are worthy that God should deliver you.” (Rashi)

“Why do these assurances of military victory follow the discussion of administering justice? Only when the People Israel practice justice at home will they be victorious in battle.” (Midrash Tanchuma)

“Since Israel’s existence in this world was bound up with God’s will, the nation’s wars were ultimately His wars: they were holy struggles. Hence, the preparations for war were ritualized, as were the distribution of booty and the treatment of the enemy, and the fight itself was directed by the One who was called ‘Lord of Hosts.’ The priest was a kind of antique army chaplain, but his service was not designed to assist the individual soldier; rather, he aimed at binding the fighting men to the purposes of God, and thus he literally ‘consecrated’ or ‘sanctified’ the war. Hence his status approached that of the High Priest.” (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary)

“The true role of the Kohen Mashuach Milchamah (the priest specifically anointed for the purpose of addressing the Israelite army -- JHP) is to address the raw, seemingly vulgar and overall secular nature of war and convert milchamah (war – JHP) into an operation of Torah and kedushah (holiness). Thus, the it is necessary for a kohen - one whose existence must be pure and centered on mikdash (Sanctuary – JHP) service - to encourage the troops, so as to demonstrate the sanctity of their mission.” (Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer)

“What is human warfare but just this; an effort to make the laws of God and nature take sides with one party.” (Henry David Thoreau)

Questions for Discussion

Rashi calls to our attention the force of the phrase “Hear, O Israel!” (Shema Yisrael) in the priest’s formulaic charge to Israelite troops. How does this change the nature and tone of the priestly statement? How does the role of the Shema as a death-bed prayer impact your reading of this passage?

What is the difference – if any – between Rabbi Plaut’s discussion of “holy struggles” and the Muslim concept of “holy war”?

How does Rabbi Gordimer’s view that the priest functions to raise warfare above its inherent vulgarity compare to, say, the role of clergy in accompanying condemnedprisoners to execution? Does it humanize the process or simply cover up unseemly and morally problematic act of violence… assuaging well-placed guilt and recriminations by a troubled body politic? What might Thoreau say to this question?

Verse 4 (“…For it is the Lord…”) is incorporated into the prayer for Tzahal – soldiers of the Israel Defense Force – prescribed by the Chief Rabbinate. How does the Biblical context (and the “commentaries” here provided) change your understanding of this prayer?

Historic Note

Parashat Shoftim, read on August 25, 2012, clearly distinguishes between the punishment for the perpetrator of accidental homicide and treatment of “a person who is the enemy of another, lies in wait for him and sets upon him and strikes him a fatal blow” – that is, the premeditated murderer. On August 25, 1981, Mark David Chapman was sentenced to twenty years in prison for the murder of John Lennon.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Parashat Shoftim’s prohibition against the destruction of fruit-bearing trees during the course of a military siege (Deuteronomy 20:19) has been expanded into a broad halachic category – bal tashchit – forbidding the wanton destruction of any natural resources or, indeed, anything useful. The Sefer Ha-Chinuch (#350) treats the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit as a central and paradigmatic principle of Jewish piety. The message of the Biblical injunction teaches 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… that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost… if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who rejoice in the destruction of the world, and they are destroying themselves.” See the discussion of this principle in Walking With Justice, edited by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson and Deborah Silver.

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