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Torah Sparks

September 10, 2005 - 6 Elul 5765

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 Daniel A. Ornstein
Congregation Ohav Shalom, Albany, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Where We Are in the Torah

This week's portion is Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9, the fifth in the book. It coincides with the fourth of seven Shabbatot of Consolation that follow Tisha B'Av and precedes Rosh Hashanah.


Shoftim continues Moshe's review of the laws given by God to the Israelites in preparation for their entering the Promised Land: 1) Judges, the judicial system, and rules of testimony in capital cases; 2) How a king is to behave; 3) Gifts to the priests and the levites; 4) Prohibitions against sorcerers and diviners, and rules concerning true and false prophets; 5) The cities of refuge for those who kill accidentally; 6) Respect for others' property boundaries; 7) False witnesses; 8) Preparations for battle and treatment of enemies who have been conquered; 9) Treatment of natural resources, especially trees, during battle and siege; 10) What happens when someone is found murdered in a field by an unknown assailant: the ritual of the broken neck heifer.

Tbe First Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

(Concerning your appearance before the judges of your generation who preside in your community): You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left. (17:11)

  • From Sifre Devarim, (A work of legal Midrash on Deuteronomy attributed to the School of Rabbi Akiva, 2nd Century C.E.) - The words, "WITHIN ONE OF YOUR GATES" teach us that the poor of one's community take priority over the poor of another community.
  • From The Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Brachot, 1:4 - YOU SHALL ACT IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE INSTRUCTIONS GIVEN YOU: To what are a prophet and a sage to be compared? To a king who sent his two ambassadors to a state. For one of them he wrote (to the leaders of that state), "If he does not show you my seal, do not believe him, (that is, anything that he claims to represent about the king). For the other he wrote, "Even if he does not show you my seal, believe him. Similarly, concerning the prophet, (God our King writes in the Torah), "IF HE GIVES YOU A SIGN OR A PORTENT." (Deuteronomy 13:2) But here, (in Deuteronomy 17:11, concerning judges and sages, God our King writes), YOU SHALL ACT IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE INSTRUCTIONS GIVEN YOU. (That is, even without a sign. Translation by Rabbi Ellliot Dorff.)
  • From Sifre Devarim, (A work of legal Midrash on Deuteronomy attributed to the School Of Rabbi Akiva, 2nd Century C.E.) - YOU MUST NOT DEVIATE… EITHER TO THE RIGHT OR TO THE LEFT: Even if it appears that the judges have taught you that left is right and that right is left, you must still listen to them.
  • From The Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Horayot, 1:5 - You might think that if the judges teach you that right is left and that left is right, you should listen to them. Therefore the Torah teaches: TO THE RIGHT OR TO THE LEFT. When they teach you that right is right and that left is left, (then you should listen to them and not any other time.)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, who has more religious authority to determine God's will, the Talmudic sage or one who claims to be a prophet? What are the differences between the approach of the prophet and the approach of the sage to determining God's will? Why would the Talmud have been concerned with showing that interpretation had superseded prophetic revelation?
  2. Sifre Devarim gives a tremendous amount of authority to the sages and judges of each generation to interpret and teach the Torah. How do we square this authority with the authority of God's explicit word in the Torah?
  3. The source from Sifre is often quoted in Conservative Movement sources to point to the power of ongoing halachic (legal) interpretation that is built into the Torah: we are not simply passive recipients of the tradition but active interpreters of that tradition, through the authoritative efforts of our religious leaders.
  4. Note the tension between the teaching from Sifre and the opposite teaching from the Talmud: there are limits on how far the sages can go in determining that right is left and vice versa. What are those limits within Jewish law? Who determines them?
  5. It is quite interesting that the Jerusalem Talmud places great emphasis on rabbinic authority to make decisions for the community, while also placing in the hands of the individual the responsibility to decide if that very same authority has violated its bounds by distorting the Torah with incorrect interpretations. Is this an internal contradiction?

Tbe Second Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

(Connect these verses to part one of the Torah portion section.)

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time to capture, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced. (20:19-20)

  • From Maimonides, (1138-1204, Spain, Morocco, and Egypt): Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Kings, 6:10 - Trees are not the only things included in this prohibition against wanton destruction. In fact, any person who breaks utensils, rips up clothing, tears downs a building, stops up a spring, or destroys food unnecessarily, is in violation of Deuteronomy's prohibition of "Do not destroy."
  • From Rashi, (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, France and Germany 1040-1104) - ARE TREES OF THE FIELD HUMAN: The grammatical sense of this verse in the Hebrew is a rhetorical question: Is it perhaps the case that a tree of the field is like a person, able to retreat into a fortified city from before you…? (Of course a tree on a field of battle cannot do this like people could!) Therefore, why would you wantonly cut it down?
  • From Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, (Spain, North Africa, and Europe 1089-1164) - ARE TREES OF THE FIELD HUMAN: The common reading of the Hebrew grammar of this verse turns it into a rhetorical question. In my opinion, this is incorrect, for what does it mean to say that we should not unnecessarily destroy fruit trees because they are not like people who can defend themselves from us by running away? (Ibn Ezra seems to be pointing out the illogical nature of such a statement. In the end, we might chase down and kill a human enemy running away from us anyway. RDO) In my opinion there is no need for such an explanation. When the text says, "YOU MAY EAT OF THEM BUT YOU MAY NOT CUT THEM DOWN" the next statement should be read as a kind of shorthand: FOR (the life of) HUMANS (is dependent upon) TREES OF THE FIELD.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Note the Torah's insistence that we preserve living things even as we are engaged in war and killing. Apart from rules about conserving resources, what rules about the conventions of warfare could be derived from these laws?
  2. Bal tashchit is the prohibition against wasting resources and destroying things for no reason. It is one of the world's earliest laws about protecting the environment. How do we distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate destruction of resources in our daily lives?
  3. Look carefully at Rashi's and Ibn Ezra's interpretations. What is the difference between them?
  4. Discuss: Rashi's and Ibn Ezra's comments together offer us a comprehensive Jewish approach to environmental ethics. Protection of the environment is done out of compassion for all living things and out of specific concern for human beings and our needs.
  5. The Torah recognizes that there are times when even trees need to be torn down for the sake of building siege works. Preservation at times yields to "progress." In our time the fierce debate continues about balancing human progress with environmental protection. What might the Torah and its interpreters have to say about this balance?

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