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Parashat Shoftim
August 30, 2014 – 4 Elul 5774

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Israel’s judges must uphold the highest ethical standards, and must be especially vigilant in prosecuting idolaters. They must enable higher courts to answer the questions they themselves cannot answer.

Israel is permitted to appoint a king -- in accordance with God’s standards and the Torah’s standards. Priests and Levites must be compensated by the people for their work. Prophets must prove themselves to genuinely speak the word of God.

Those who kill unintentionally can escape to an asylum city before being avenged. The same luxury is not afforded to those who murder with intent. To convict someone of a crime, there must be at least two legitimate witnesses who can testify.

Soldiers must be selected among those who will fight without distraction. They must offer terms of peace before attacking; if those terms are refused, they may besiege the city. But they may attack unprovoked the cities that God had promised them, yet care should be taken not to destroy all the trees.

If a person is found murdered and the perpetrator is unknown, the priests and elders engage in ritual to clear the city of the crime.

Theme #1: Here Come the Judges

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. You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

The ethics of human leadership are at the forefront of this week’s Torah portion, with a strong imperative at the beginning.

The following story is told about Rabbi Shmelke … when he served as rabbi in a community, he would always hang his walking stick and his knapsack on the wall of the synagogue. When the officers of the congregation would ask him, “Rabbi, why do you do this?” he would reply, “I have no favorites; I don’t bend the rules; and I don’t show deference to anyone. [Punning on God’s response to Moses, “I will be who I will be,” but here in reference to the appropriate verdict,] it will be what it will be. Let the law pierce the mountain -- let justice run its course. And if one of you is displeased, I am always prepared to resign as your rabbi, to pick up my staff and my knapsack, and to live as a wanderer -- even if it means I must survive, God forbid, begging from door to door.” -- Shmelke of Nikolsberg

This command is intended for the officials and communal leaders who are entrusted with the task of engaging rabbis. They must not believe that they have appointed the rabbi that 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 be be able to judge the people with righteous judgment, only then will the people obey the rabbi and abide by his judgment. -- Klei Hemda

This means that you must pursue justice with justice. The means by which you seek to attain justice must be the 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

Questions for Discussion:

This story about Rabbi Shmelke illustrates the perpetual challenge of impartiality, even among those who are charged to uphold this value every day. There are many who go to great lengths to avoid showing bias in their work (e.g., some journalists refuse to vote in elections because it may impact their reporting integrity, even though they are under no obligation to reveal their votes). Is it possible to be totally impartial? If not, is it possible to be an effective judge while simultaneously acknowledging that one has biases?

Klei Hemda mentions the challenge any community faces while choosing a leader; sometimes, it is difficult to select someone whom they will voluntarily follow. How can a community learn to relinquish their power once they have selected their leader? Is there any point of selecting a leader the people are not prepared to follow?

Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak of Przysucha understands the double usage of “justice, justice” tp mean that those in charge of dispensing justice must be equally just themselves. Is a judge’s ethical mishap a more serious transgression than similar slip-up by members of other professions? Can one dispense justice if not living justly?


Theme #2: Just Can’t Wait to be King

If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. … When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. (Deuteronomy 17:14-15, 18-19)

The success of ancient Israelite kings was spotty at best; Deuteronomy tells us of the standards by which they are judged.

The very concept of a king, melekh, is rooted in the emanation malkhut [kingship]. … The mystical dimension of the directive that the king has to write a [Torah scroll] for himself is that the emanation malkhut “receives” the written Torah, whereas the emanation itself is perceived of as being the “oral Torah.” -- Shney Luchot HaBrit

Why did the king need two scrolls of the Law [as Rashi understands Deuteronomy 17:18]? Because the greater the person, the more stringently must he take upon himself the yoke of the Law in order to remain humble. A king in Israel must take upon himself a double yoke of the Law of God. It was for the same reason that the king had to remain in a bowed position throughout the prayer service. It was to symbolize that, as the king, he had to work harder than others to attain humility. -- Yalkut David

Even though the Bible is ambivalent on the subject of kings and kingship in many passages, the concept of kings was generally viewed as a positive feature of ancestral texts. Thus YHWH’s mentioning that there were to be kings in Israel’s future should surely be seen as an enrichment of the overall promise. -- Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider


Questions for Discussion:

Shney Luchot Habrit depicts the king of Israel as both a receiver and oral transmitter of God’s laws. How can a leader of a society use language to convey the values of that society? When have great communicators made the greatest impact? While eloquence is sometimes overrated as a leadership virtue, is it, alternatively, deleterious for a society to be led by a poor communicator?

Unsurprisingly, Yalkut David claims that the two scrolls of law that an Israelite king possesses reflects the higher standards to which we hold our leaders. Is it fair, though, to expect them to be twice as virtuous as the common man or woman, to accept a “double yoke” of the law? When is it proper to recognize a leader’s limitations? How important is decency when evaluating the quality of a leader?

Spina sees the fact that God approves the future appointment of a human king as a sign that our text sees such a leader as a positive for a nation. How does this contrast with warnings brought by the prophet Samuel about the prospect of human kings? Does the history of Israelite kings, as depicted in the books of Samuel and Kings, show royalty as a positive force in society, or more of a mixed bag?

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