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Torah Sparks

August 22, 2009 – 2 Elul 5769

Annual: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9 (Etz Hayim, p. 1088; Hertz p. 820)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 18:6 – 19:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 1088; Hertz p. 825)
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12 (Etz Hayim, p. 1108; Hertz p. 835)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

The Israelites are to appoint judges and officers in all their communities to insure the administration of justice.

It is forbidden to set up a sacred pillar like those used in idol worship, even if it is dedicated to God. Idolaters are to be put to death, but only after being convicted by the testimony of at least two witnesses.

There is to be a central, higher court to hear cases deemed too difficult for local judges. Its decisions are binding.

If and when Israel establishes a monarchy, the king must make a copy of the Torah and keep it with him at all times, for the king also is subject to God’s laws.

The priests and Levites have no territory of their own and so must be supported by the agricultural dues of the members of the other tribes.

Sorcery in all its forms is forbidden. True prophets are to be obeyed, but false prophets must be put to death.

After the Israelites have conquered the land and settled in it, they are to designate three cities of refuge to which a person who commits accidental manslaughter may flee and be safe from the relatives of the person he killed. These cities will provide no safety for the intentional murderer.

Rules of war and the treatment of enemies are given. The ritual of breaking the heifer’s neck – to be performed when a murder victim is found and the killer is unknown – is described.

1. Walking with God

You must be wholehearted [tamim] with the Lord your God. (Deut. 18:13)

  1. “You must be wholehearted”... perfect and complete with Him. Even when you seek to inquire as to the future you shall inquire of none other than Him, through a prophet or the Umim and Tumim. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  2. And you are only to consult Him, not the dead. Seeing that the existence of necromancers is a form of God’s testing the faith of the people in Him, He enabled the spiritually negative elements in this world, the demons, to possess some apparent powers to reveal the future. (Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir), 1080-1158, France, Rashi’s grandson)
  3. You should know that the precepts of the heart imply a complete harmony between our inner and outward actions, as regards the service of the Lord, till the heart and tongue and other limbs will be at one with each other, each one justifying and bearing witness in favor of the other, neither contradicting nor belying each other. This is what Scripture refers to in the term “wholehearted,” when it admonishes us to be “wholehearted with the Lord your God.”... It is well known that a man whose conduct is contradictory, his words being at variance with his deeds, is not trusted. People do not believe in his sincerity. If we are similarly insincere in our dealings with God, the intention of our hearts being contradicted by our words, and our inner conscience by our outward actions, our service to God cannot be perfect, since He does not accept insincere service. (Hovot Ha-levavot (Bahya ibn Pekuda), 1050-1120, Spain)
  4. There are only two commandments that must be performed “with the Lord your God.” One is “You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God,” while the other is “Walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). The reason why the Torah stresses this in these two commandments is because in both it is very easy to fool others. A person can act as purely innocent and yet be involved in all types of devilish schemes, or he can pose as the most humble of all men while pride rages within him. The Torah stresses that in both the cases God Himself, as it were, tests you, and while you may be able to fool others, you cannot fool Him. (Rabbi Pinhas Shapiro of Koretz, 1726-1791, Ukraine)
  5. Walk with Him in wholeheartedness and depend upon Him and do not seek into the future; but whatever befalls you, accept it with wholeheartedness and then you will be with Him and His portion. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  6. This verse enjoins us to trust in the Almighty. A question that can frequently arise is what is considered normal hishtadlus [effort], that is, human efforts that we have an obligation to make and what is considered a lack of trust?... Having trust in the Almighty will give a person peace of mind and serenity. But one should never use a claim of trust in the Almighty to condone laziness or rash behavior. There is a thin line between the virtue of bitochon [trust] and the fault of carelessness and lack of taking responsibility. (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Growth Through Torah, p. 431)

Sparks for Discussion

This brief verse is not so simple to understand. The word tamim, translated as “wholehearted,” can also mean perfect, innocent, sincere or trusting. Does this verse mean that by engaging in sorcery we betray our faith in God? Is it an admonition that we must make sure our words and deeds are honest and trustworthy? How would you explain this verse? How might Rashi’s comment be used to our detriment? How does Rabbi Pliskin address this concern? What does it mean to be tamim with God?

2. A Single Life

If, however, a person who is the enemy of another lies in wait for him and sets upon him and strikes him a fatal blow and then flees to one of these towns, the elders of his town shall have him brought back from there and shall hand him over to the blood-avenger to be put to death; you must show him no pity. Thus you will purge Israel of the blood of the innocent, and it will go well with you. (Deuteronomy 19:11-13)

  1. “And it will go well with you.” For the murderer will not be able to murder others. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  2. You shall not say: The first has already been killed; why shall we kill the other one and then there will be two Israelites slain? (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  3. By committing a qualifying murder the life of the murderer is forfeited, and the same sanctity of every single drop of human blood exceeding beyond the value of any other earthly possession that lies at the base of the whole institution of refuge cities and characterizes the nature of the Jewish state, demands the capital punishment of the intentional murderer as much as these cities have the purpose of protecting the life of every citizen against carelessness, and the of the unintentional manslayer against revenge. Consideration for a murderer would not be consideration for human blood but indifference towards the shedding of innocent human blood. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  4. A Sanhedrin that executed one person in seven years is called “murderous.” Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya says once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say that “if we had been on the Sanhedrin, no one ever would have been executed.” Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel says that they would thereby multiply the shedders of blood in Israel. (Mishnah Makkot 1:10)
  5. Rabbi Harold Kushner has suggested another reason for the Talmud’s widespread opposition to capital punishment: the rabbinic belief that God would punish in this world any murderers who could not be convicted. The rabbis were not terribly concerned, therefore, if a murderer walked free out of court, since they were confident that God would rectify the injustice. In fact, the Talmud relates several stories of murderers who would have gone free under the Talmud’s guidelines, but who nevertheless received a divinely inflicted death sentence... (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “Jewish Wisdom,” p. 415)
  6. Therefore only a single human being was created [at first] to teach you that one who destroys a single life, Scripture considers it as if he had destroyed an entire world, and one who saves a single life, Scripture considers it as if he had saved an entire world. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Sparks for Discussion

Why do you think the Torah is adamant that the only acceptable punishment for murder is death? The rabbis of the Talmud enacted rules of procedure in capital cases that made executions virtually impossible. Why? Why didn’t they simply abolish capital punishment? What does the continued existence of the death penalty – in theory if not in practice – teach us? To what extent do you think these texts might apply to the debate about capital punishment in contemporary society?

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