Home>Jewish Living

Parashat Shoftim
August 22, 2015 – 7 Elul 5775 

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

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: Turning a Prophet

Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the Lord, and it is because of these abhorrent things that the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)

A true prophet might be difficult to pinpoint, but our sages share ways we can tell.

Once a person accustoms himself or herself to hearing the voice of God issuing from everything, the supernal meaning now comes that has eluded the person, and this is spiritual wisdom. For certainly, concealed and hidden spiritual wisdom contains divine meaning. Moreover by means of getting in the habit of paying attention to the voice of God issuing from everything, the voice of God is revealed now [even] in spiritual wisdom. Until finally, in the spiritual wisdom itself, one finds the true appearance of God. And everything who continues to search and philosophize increases the holiness of faith and cleaving [to God] and the light of the holy Spirit. -- S’fat Emet

Said the Lord to Moses: “That prophet will be ‘like you,’ but not in every respect. When the congregation of a Korah refused to listen to your words, you were permitted to decree their punishment by yourself, saying: ‘But if the Lord makes a new thing, and the ground will open her mouth and swallow them up...’ (Numbers 16:30). The prophets who will come after you will not be able to do this. I will have to take up their cause. I, the Lord, will personally deal with him who will not hearken. I, the Lord, will require it of him.” -- Meshekh Hokhmah

I believe in prophets because I have met one. … Of Otha [Turner’s] favorite sayings, one has always stayed with me -- a phrase he would always offer to his family and friends when they were faced with a difficult life decision: “Don’t nothing make a fail but a try!” Its meaning was clear to me: Trying to do something is not enough. You simply must do it. Given the obstacles we are faced with in life, the only way to meet them is head-on. Happiness, community, and justice must be pursued with conviction and determination. Expecting them simply to be given to us is like walking through the desert, hoping for an oasis that might never come. -- David Katznelson, from Unscrolled, Roger Bennett, ed.

Questions for Discussion:

The S'fat Emet tries to define spiritual wisdom. Is spiritual wisdom synonymous with prophecy? Does prophecy require an understanding of the future in addition to a connection with the present? What else does a prophet in the Bible do besides speaking about the future? Do we pay too little attention to the other traits of the ancient prophets?

Meshekh Hokhmah quotes an instance when Moses determines a punishment, apparently independent of God's input. According to this midrash, God tells Moses that future prophets won't be given this privilege. Why is Moses given this power that everyone subsequent to him lacks? Do we do ourselves a disservice by assuming that no one will ever again approach Moses's greatness? Is there anything wrong with hoping that there will be another like Moses someday? If there is, what does that say about the limits of what modern communities can achieve?

Katznelson refers to someone, Otha Turner, whom he believes is very wise. Often, when we refer to someone being "prophetic" today, it means that the person's predictions have come true. Is that a good word for that person, or are terms like "insightful" or "well-read" or "lucky" more appropriate? Are there people today that have spiritual wisdom, as S'fat Emet implies, or is this simply an ideal that no one can attain anymore? 

Theme #2: A Great Escape

When the Lord your God has cut down the nations whose land the Lord your God is assigning to you, and you have dispossessed them and settled in their towns and homes, you shall set aside three cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess. (Deuteronomy 19:1-2)

Once again, the Torah explores the creation of refuge cities for perpetrators of manslaughter.

In early times before the establishment of a stable government under a king, princes, judges and law enforcement officers, each family executed its own private vengeance, the next-of-kin of the murderer being obliged to avenge personally his death. The Torah appointed judges and officers and took vengeance out of the hands of individuals, entrusting it to the whole community. Now when the murder was deliberate, it was conceivable to quieten the blood avenger by saying to him: Leave it to the judges, they will investigate and bring him to justice if he is guilty. But when manslaughter was involved it was not possible to quieten the blood-avenger and force him to see the murderer of his father go unpunished. For that would be regarded by himself and his friends as if he was lacking in love of his father in not avenging his death. This attitude could not be eradicated all at once. -- Moshe Chaim Luzzatto

Numbers 35 dealt at length with the same problem, the fate of the accidental murderer. There, however, the manslayer was confined to particular locations until the death of the High Priest, as a kind of atonement for the polluting of the land through bloodshed, whereas here it is primarily to escape family vengeance. -- Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

Everything must be done so that the cities can be reached easily; this includes building roads and making them level. -- Maimonides 

Questions for Discussion:

Luzzatto understands the laws of the refuge cities as necessary yet temporary directives in order to gradually lessen the urge to avenge a family member's death in the case of manslaughter. What other laws in our civil society were created with the idea that they would not need to be in place forever? What other Jewish laws fall into this category? How do we go about changing these laws if they have been in place for a long time?

Fox reminds us of an alternate justification for refuge cities: they don't exist because of the threat of revenge, but rather because the perpetrator has defiled the land through his/her inadvertent actions. What does this say about the severe damage that can take place because of accidents? What does this teach us about the unintentional hurt that we cause? Is saying "I didn't mean to do it" enough? Should our approach to repentance be the same for both intentional and unintentional wrongdoing?

Maimonides states that these refuge cities must be easily accessible so that those guilty of manslaughter can reach them without a problem. He tells us that even people who have caused harm must have the rights they have been guaranteed, even if society might look at them askance. What does this teach us about providing access to those who need them through no fault of their own? How good are our communities at guaranteeing access to all who need it?

Find a Kehilla USY Conservative Yeshiva Donate Careers Contact us
Copyright © 2017
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
All rights reserved.
120 Broadway, Suite 1540
New York, NY 10271-0016