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Torah Sparks

Parashat Shoftim
August 10, 2013 – 4 Elul 5773

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 Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

In its most famous verse, parashat Shoftim provides its own synopsis: "Justice, justice, shall you pursue." Judges of reliable character are to be appointed for all Israelite jurisdictions. The godliness of administering justice is contrasted with three prohibited idolatrous practices: the use of sacred posts, idolatrous stone pillars, and the sacrifice of blemished animals. Only the testimony of two or more witnesses may be treated as dispositive. Major cases are brought "before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time." The verdict of this high court is to be carried out in its every detail. Undermining justice by disregarding the verdict is itself a capital crime.

The appointment of an Israelite king is permitted within carefully prescribed parameters. The levitical priests, too, are defined by both perquisites and restrictions. They have no territorial inheritance among the tribes, but they are provided for through sacrificial offerings and related emoluments.

A variety of abhorrent and idolatrous practices, attributed to Canaan's indigenous population, are forbidden the Israelites: child sacrifice, witchcraft and sorcery in its various forms, and necromancy – inquiring of the dead. The religious duty to heed the words of God's prophets is prescribed, as is the analogous commandment to identify and eschew the false prophet.

The distinction between unintentional homicide and premeditated murder is central to Israelite criminal law, and cities of refuge are to be provided for hapless perpetrators of manslaughter. False witnesses are subject to the penalty that would have befallen the accused. The prohibition against moving a neighbor's property markers is an analogous safeguard against people who would deprive others of their legal rights and immunities.

Laws about warfare follow: the priestly exhortation of combatants and announcement of deferments from military duty; the obligation to offer terms of peaceful surrender before attacking a city; the inapplicability of this provision to indigenous Canaanites, who are to be proscribed; the law against destroying a besieged city's trees. The final jurisprudential provision in the parashah is the legal and expiatory ritual response to an unsolved murder.

Theme #1: "Soul Beneficiaries"

"The levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no territorial portion with Israel. They shall live only off the Lord's gifts as their portion, and shall have no portion among their brother tribes: the Lord is their portion, as He promised them." (Deuteronomy 18:1-2)

Derash: Study

"The priests and Levites were not to possess any allotment of land. The history of the European peoples would have been a happier one than it has been, if the priesthood had been debarred from ownership of land." (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"Tribal territory is viewed here as a source of livelihood. The priests are given their sustenance directly so they can devote their efforts to clerical duties instead of producing food and other necessities." (Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Commentary)

"Most people must toil for a living and are forbidden to rely on miracles, as a consequence of God's curse to humanity following Adam's sin: 'By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread' (Gen. 3:19)… The Levites, because of their role as teachers of Torah, were exempted from this curse and assured that God would provide for their needs. Their example nonetheless contains a lesson for the rest of us: Although we must toil to earn a living, all our inheritance also comes only from God, Who provides directly for all our needs… We must never forget that everything we have is a gift from God." (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein)

"Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul." (Democritus)

"National honor is the national property of the highest value." (James Monroe)

Questions for Discussion

"The Lord is his portion" (Adonai hu nachalato) is borrowed from this verse and included in El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer recited at funerals, Yizkor, and other times of personal commemoration. How does the biblical origin of this phrase elucidate its familiar liturgical use? Suggest a theology of life and death?

Why did it make sense for the Tribe of Levi to be without a territorial possession? To assure equal levitical service to the rest of the tribes by distributing Levites among them? To prevent a priestly class from acquiring untoward power through acquisition of land (compare Hertz)? To allow those entrusted with cultic leadership the leisure to immerse themselves in matters spiritual? So that Levites could effectively serve as role models of our reliance on God's munificence?

Both Democritus and Monroe assert that there are riches that transcend material possessions and property. How do their insights apply with special force to the experience of the Tribe of Levi?

In contrast to our verse, the Sages of the Talmudic Period all pursued careers and professions in addition to their religious leadership (Shammai was a builder; Rav Papa a brewer, Rashi a vintner, etc). Did the Levites' lack of property and agrarian responsibilities enhance or impede their effectiveness as spiritual leaders? Which model better serves religious leaders today?

Theme #2: "Yet here's a spot"

"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.'" (Deuteronomy 21:7-8)

Derash: Study

"Would it even occur to us to think that the elders on the court themselves were shedders of blood? Rather, they must testify: 'He did not come to us only to be turned away without food, nor did we see him and let him travel on unaccompanied.'" (Mishnah Sotah 9:6)

"Let a year-old heifer that has never produced through labor be brought, and break its neck in a place which has never produced fruit, to make atonement for the killing of a human being who was thereby kept from further fertile activity." (Rashi, citing BT Sotah 46)

"The first lesson of this law is that leaders are entrusted with setting the moral tone of a society. Thus, they can be held responsible for a social climate in which a person can go unnoticed, in which no one cries out 'Halt!' to the murderer or 'Look out!' to the victim. Respected elders might not sully their hands with murder. But in any culture, they may be guilty of caring more for property or power than people. They are guilty unless they can swear that they tried their best to create a humane society, one that protects the weak, the outsider." (Blu Greenberg)

"Though not directly responsible, the elders lament the loss of life with all its promise. The crime has not only desecrated the image of God imprinted on every human soul, but also diminished the capacity of society to sustain itself. The ritual cleanses because it forces conscience to the fore. Without remorse, there can be no forgiveness." (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)

"Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest." (W. H. Auden)

Questions for Discussion

Rashi (quoting the Talmud) calls our attention to the dramatic message of the unworked heifer and the barren venue of the ritual. Murder deprives the victim (and society) not only of further progeny, but of all fruitful labor and productive contributions. We are all victimized by such a crime. Consider how this principle is especially relevant in understanding the Holocaust: how many potential doctors and scientists, artists and writers, philosophers and religious luminaries, good and decent people – and all their prospective contributions – were stolen from humanity?!

What are the limitations to the principle that leaders are responsible for the "social climate" in which murder is perpetrated? What responsible steps do we rightfully demand of our leaders in securing public safety?

What social ills can we fairly trace to poor political – or religious – leadership?

Is murder unique in its moral gravity and in the moral burden it places on society, as Auden states? Are there other crimes in which we collectively have "a direct interest"?

Consider Rabbi Schorsch's statement. How else does Jewish practice "force conscience to the fore" and facilitate the experience and articulation of remorse?

Historic Note

Parashat Shoftim, read on August 10, 2013, deals extensively with the distinction between manslaughter and premeditated murder, and the penal consequences of these crimes. 36 years ago today, on August 10, 1977, postal employee David Berkowitz was arrested in Yonkers, New York, as "Son of Sam" - the 44 caliber killer.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Parashat Shoftim deals with deferments from military service. Rabbi Reuven Hammer, past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, wrote a responsum concerning the sacred significance of service in the Israel Defense Force, and criticizing the wide-spread pattern of Yeshiva students securing exemptions from military service: "Service in Zahal is a halakhic duty incumbent on every Jew living in the State of Israel. Whoever sees himself as engaged in important religious work has an even greater obligation to set an example by military service. Only in this way can he be properly prepared to effectively participate in a commanded war for the safety of the State of Israel. Not to do this involves violation of three major mitzvot: Participation in a commanded war for defense of the State of Israel; 'do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor'; the saving of human life. To shirk this duty is to violate the halakhah." See responsa of the Vaad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, 2:7 (Hoshen Mishpat 426).

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