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Torah Sparks

August 14, 2010 - 4 Elul 5770

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

Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Newark, 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 high 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. I Speak for the Trees

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, 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? (Deuteronomy 20:19)

  1. Do not destroy the tree (just) to wield an ax of destruction upon it [for the sole purpose] of doing harm to the inhabitants of that city. Because the cutting down of trees in a destructive manner is done by armies to harm [the enemy] when they are not certain that they will be victorious and dwell in the land. However, you, who are assured that you will conquer the land and settle in it, must not destroy the fruit-bearing trees. Without a doubt, you will conquer the land and eat from its trees, provided you do not destroy them. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  2. He who destroys anything from which benefit may be derived transgresses bal tashkhit, “do not destroy.” (Midrash Aggadah, Shoftim)
  3. And not only trees, but whoever breaks utensils, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a well, or willfully destroys food violates the prohibition of bal tashkhit. (Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melakhim 6:10)
  4. He who in anger tears garments, breaks his utensils, or squanders his money shall be accounted by you as if he worshipped idols. For such are the workings of the evil inclination - today it says to you: Do this, and tomorrow: Do the other, until the point is reached when it says to you: Serve idols, and he will go and do so. (Talmud Shabbat 105b)
  5. “You shall make the planks for the Tabernacle of acacia wood” (Exodus 26:15). Why of acacia wood? God set an example for all time, that when a person is about to build his house from a fruit-bearing tree, he should be reminded: If, when the supreme King of kings commanded the Temple to be erected, His instructions were to use only such trees as are not fruit-bearing - though all things belong to Him - how much more should this be so in your case? (Midrash Shemot Rabbah 35:2)
  6. The reason for this prohibition is that one must not employ things that God has created in order to achieve the opposite purpose of what God had had in mind when He provided such phenomena... Destroying fruit-bearing trees, especially when in the process of starving a beleaguered population into submission, or even by using the wood to build ramparts from which to shoot into these cities, or a wall limiting egress from the city, perverts the purpose for which God had created fruit-bearing trees. (Haketav Vehakabbalah [Rabbi Jacob Zvi Mecklenburg, 1785-1865, Germany])
  7. When God created Adam, He led him around the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Behold My works! See how beautiful they are, how excellent! All that I have created, for your sake did I create it. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you. (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

Sparks for Discussion

This verse is the source of the mitzvah prohibition known as bal tashkhit, “do not destroy.” Some of our commentators give practical reasons for this prohibition; others give theological reasons. Do you think that enlightened self-interest is a sufficient basis for “going green”? How would you define Jewish environmentalism?

2. The Social Contract

Then all the elders of the town nearest the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of bloodguilt. (Deuteronomy 21:6-8)

  1. Now would it enter our minds to assume that the elders of a bet din are shedders of blood? What, then, is the intent of “Our hands did not shed this blood”? He [the dead person] was not in “our hands” and dismissed without a meal; and we did not see him and let him go without an escort. Whereupon Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi derived: The ritual of the eglah arufah (the heifer whose neck is broken)] is brought about only because of the “narrow eyed” (the inhospitable). (Talmud Sotah 48b)
  2. The rabbis of [Eretz Yisrael] took the text to refer to the murderer. That no one came within our jurisdiction whom we discharged and failed to put to death, that we overlooked him and failed to bring him to justice. The rabbis of [Babylonia] took the text to refer to the victim. (Talmud Yerushalmi Sotah 9:6)
  3. “Our hands” - We did not allow any known murderer to remain in the land. “Our eyes” - It did not occur in a place where it could be seen, for if there were those who saw it happen, they would have risen up and testified. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  4. That we were not indirectly instrumental in this murder on account of not providing the murderer with food, for the lack of which he was driven to commit this capital crime, or because we did not provide the victim with an escort that he should not go alone in a place of danger. (Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehuda Leibush ben Yehiel Michal), 1809-1880, Russia)
  5. When murderers increased in number the rite of breaking the heifer's neck was abolished. Mishnah Sotah 9:9)

Sparks for Discussion

The ritual of the eglah arufah implied that the community's leaders bore some responsibility for this unsolved murder, but just what were they responsible for? Did they turn away a stranger without a meal and an escort so that he became a victim or so that he became a criminal? Were they lax in prosecuting a murderer, leaving him free to kill again? Malbim suggests that the murderer was driven to kill because of his dire poverty. Do you believe that poverty causes or contributes to crime? Why do you think this ritual was abolished when murder became common?

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