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Torah Sparks

August 18, 2007 – 4 Elul 5767

Annual: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1088; Hertz p. 820)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 19:14 – 21:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1099; Hertz p. 829)
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12 (Etz Hayim, p. 1108; Hertz p. 835)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Moses continues to review the laws for the Israelites in anticipation of their entry into the Promised Land. Our parashah opens with the mandate to create a judicial system charged with the responsibility of interpreting the codified laws as actual cases arise. By extension, this mandate also authorizes the development of legislation that builds on the existing body of laws.

Elaborating on the subject of leadership, Moses discusses the possibility of the people being ruled by such a monarch. An Israelite king is expected to abide by the Torah and to live with some limitations upon his regal style. Touching on another aspect of leadership, we read of the lack of a contiguous land inheritance for the kohanim and the Levites, as well as a summary of the tithes and other gifts that were designated to provide for their sustenance. We read prohibitions against sorcerers and diviners, as well as rules concerning true and false prophets.

Moses elaborates upon the command to establish cities of refuge for people who kill other people accidentally. At the end of our parashah, we read the procedure for dealing with a corpse found in a field if the people who find the body don’t know how death happened. Both of these scenarios reflect a societal reverence for life, coupled with a concern for fairness. Other aspects of fairness are underscored in the requirement to respect the property boundaries of others’ land and the demand that a court must verify testimony that would make an unfair judgment more likely.

As we might expect from instructions to a people on the verge of entering the Promised Land, we read several important guidelines about how warfare should be conducted. After the Israelites are exhorted not to fear their rivals, several classes of people are excused from military service. There is also a prohibition against destroying fruit trees during battle and siege.

Topic #1: Human Ability to Rationalize

An Israelite king’s power, as outlined in the latter part of Chapter 17, is not entirely unfettered. The king has several positive commandments to live up to, as well as a variety of restrictions. Among the restrictions are:

Moreover, he 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. (Deuteronomy 17:16-17)

But the Bible indicates that King David’s son did not follow the letter of the law:

Solomon had 40,000 stalls of horses for the chariotry and 12,000 horsemen. (I Kings 5:6)

He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines. (I Kings 11:3)

King Solomon, widely noted for his wisdom, seems to have shown remarkably poor judgment!

We are not the first to note that this king seemed to ignore the Torah’s rules for a monarch. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yitzhak wonders how King Solomon might have sought to justify behaving contrary to the Torah’s specific instructions.

Rabbi Yitzhak further said: Why were the reasons for [the commandments in] the Torah not revealed? Because in two passages where the Bible revealed reasons, the greatest [intellect] in the world stumbled [over fulfilling those commandments]. It is written: “He shall not have many wives.” Solomon reasoned: “I will have many and not go astray.” But [the result] is written:

And it came to pass, as Solomon reached advanced age, his wives turned away his heart. (I Kings 11:4)

(Rabbi Yitzhak continues:) It is written: “He shall not keep many horses.” Solomon reasoned: “I will have many and not send people back [to Egypt].” But [the result] is written:

Solomon’s horses were procured from Egypt and Kue. The king’s dealers would buy them from Egypt at a fixed price. A chariot imported from Egypt cost 600 shekels of silver… (I Kings 10:28-29)

(Sanhedrin 21b)

In the extended passage above, Rabbi Yitzhak suggested that perhaps it is not such a good idea for the Torah to specify the reasons for the commandments, since this seems to invite enterprising people to figure out why and how these reasons do not apply to their own situation. On the other hand, we certainly feel that slavish execution of divine commandments is inferior to the fulfillment of mitzvot with focused intent. (See, for example, Mindful Jewish Living, by Jonathan P. Slater.)

How important is it to have an understanding of the purpose of a given mitzvah, instead of simply saying “it is a mitzvah”? Should we seek to satisfy our legitimate curiosity about the purposes and goals of the commandments? If we do that, how do we guard against the tendency to rationalize away any practice that is inconvenient in our own lives?

Topic #2: Human Dignity

In the closing passage of this week’s parashah (21:1-9) we read of a disheartening situation, coupled with a positive communal response. Because respect for human dignity demands that an unsolved murder is not to be ignored, the Torah prescribes a procedure through which the community sensitizes itself to the value of human life. Curiously, the unspecified role played by the kohanim in this ceremony (21:5) does not begin until after an animal has been ritually slaughtered.

Kohanim generally are required to avoid contact with the dead, as outlined in Leviticus 21. The Torah grants exceptions when members of the kohen’s immediate family die. These exceptions do not undermine the basic framework, which calls for kohanim to be involved with life, rather than preoccupied with death.

A category analogous to the unsolved murder scenario in our parashah is the metmitzvah, an unattended dead body of a friendless person. Rather than leave such a body to await the unanticipated appearance of an unknown relative or friend, during Roman times the rabbis ruled that attending to such a corpse becomes the responsibility of every Jew. Surprisingly, even though a kohen is strictly limited in his contact with the dead, the rabbis mandated that attending to a met mitzvah preempts these limitations, even for the kohen gadol, the high priest! (The source is the legally oriented midrash known as Sifra, in a comment to Leviticus 21:1 that is cited on page 513 of Hertz’s commentary in The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (sic).)

What message do we think the rabbis were sending by allowing a kohen to disregard an explicit Torah commandment to take care of a met mitzvah?

How did the rabbis deal with a conflict between two positive values (in this case, the kohen’s need to maintain his bodily purity vs. the recognition that the met mitzvah was created in God’s image, just as everyone else is)?

A conflict between right and wrong should not require much intellectual struggle. How do we, in the twenty-first century, deal with two right values that collide with each other?

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