TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Shofetim


TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Shofetim
August 18, 2018 | 7 Elul 5778
Annual | Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 (Etz Hayim p. 1088-1106; Hertz p. 820-835)
Triennial | Deuteronomy 18:6-19:13 (Etz Hayim p. 1094-1099; Hertz p. 825-829)
Haftarah | Isaiah 51:12-52:12 (Etz Hayim p. 1107-1111; Hertz p. 835-839)

D’var Torah: Restoration of Judges
Dr. Shaiya Rothberg, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

In this week’s parashah, the People Israel stand in the desert outside the Land of Israel. Moses instructs them about the Israelite State they will establish when they cross the river. They’ve been nomads for decades in a vast wilderness, in the semi-magical state of being fed, clothed and watered directly by God. But now things get tough: they will become a nation in the Land, and in history; governing themselves without Moses their leader and prophet. The time has come that they must understand God’s expectations on their own.

God lays down the basic principle in our parashah (Deut. 16:18-20): “You shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes…and they shall govern the people with due justice…Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and inherit the land…” These words make a clear connection between inheriting the land and doing justice. If you want to inherit the land, God says, then you’ll have to pursue justice. Justice is the condition for the existence of a Jewish state in the Holy Land.

As the holy story unfolds in the subsequent books of the Bible, we learn that the challenges of self-government were immense. We warred with local peoples and scurried under the feet of great empires, trying not to get crushed. It was hard to get just government right. Things got so bad that God pronounced the destruction of the Jewish state and the exile of her inhabitants. But God also promised that we would return (Isaiah 1:24-27): “Therefore said the LORD, the LORD of hosts, the mighty One of Israel…I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counsellors as at the beginning: afterward you shall be called, The City of Righteousness, the Faithful City. Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and those that return to her with righteousness.” It was the lack of justice which drove us out and it will be the return of justice that will bring us back again.

The Rabbis, through their art of midrash, weave together the beginning and the end: Our parashah states “You shall appoint judges…that you may live and inherit the land…” and the sages comment: “this teaches us that appointing judges is able to resurrect the People Israel, establish them in the land and protect them from the sword.” (Sifri, 144). In their simple meaning, the words from our parashah speak not about our return after exile but rather teach us how to prevent exile. But the Rabbis lived after the destruction, and taking their cue from the words of the prophets, they learned that justice is not only the key to preventing exile but also to our return afterwards. And thus, they teach that appointing judges, symbolizing the establishment of just government, is the key to the resurrection of the Jewish body politic in Eretz Yisrael.

We are again a small state facing immense challenges. We are at war with locals and dodging the feet of superpowers, just as before. In these harsh circumstances it is indeed difficult to get government right. But this week’s parashah reminds us that we must never forget that the heart of Judaism is justice and that the condition for living in Eretz Yisrael is just government for all who live in it. The only alternative is exile and destruction. However, should we remain faithful to our mission, God has promised that we will not only survive in the Land, we will flourish in it.

May it be God’s will that the history of our era bears witness that we remained faithful to our task.

Parashat Shofetim Self-Study
Vered Hollander-GoldfarbConservative Yeshiva Faculty

This week we will meet some of the institutions of the society; courts, king and prophets, along with state, cultic and criminal laws and laws of war.

1) In the opening paragraph about judges (shofetim) the Torah instructs ‘Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof’ (‘justice, justice you shall pursue’ 16:20). Who do you think that this instruction is directed to? Why do you think that the Torah doubled the word Tzedek?

2) The people who lived in the land previously followed various witchcraft practitioners, but we are not allowed to do so. We will be sent a prophet (Navi) who will speak God’s words to us (18:14-18). Why do you think that we may not turn to sorcerers? What might be the difference in the ‘service’ that sorcerers and prophets provide?

3) Cities of refuge have to be provided for anyone who accidentally killed someone to escape the blood avenger (19:2-10). If there are not sufficient and available cities, the killer might be killed, and ‘the blood guilt will be upon you’. To whom do you think the Torah directs this instruction? What do you think about holding them responsible for a death they did not commit?

4) Should a person intentionally bear false witness against another person, it should be done to him as he intended to do to the person against whom he testified (19:16-20). Why do you think that the Torah did not give a clear punishment for this offense?

5) When laying siege to a city, we may not destroy the trees of the city, especially its fruit trees (20:19-20). What do you think is the rationale behind this commandment?

D’var Haftarah: Reading & Re-Reading
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

It is difficult for “privileged” people to comprehend what it might be like to be conquered and turned over to others as worthless property. Yet this was the experience of countless generations of Jews whose fate was determined by conquerors or others who held their fate in their hands. It is equally hard to understand what solace might be found in a promise which builds on this reality: “For thus said the Lord: ‘You were sold for no price and shall be redeemed without money.” (52:3)

This verse seeks to emphasize how very easy it was for people to lose their freedom. That certainly was no cause for comfort. The verse, however, turns this situation on its head, promising that God will also extricate his people from slavery with similar ease. (Amos Haham, Isaiah, Daat Mikra p. 561) This promise was meaningful to a people forcibly exiled at the hands of the Babylonians who yearned to return to their homeland. The hope in this promise was nothing less than miraculous.

If this promise seems a little too facile for moderns, it was also troublesome for some of the medieval commentators who could not imagine that redemption could be without cost. Their definition of cost, of course, was different. Rashi read this verse metaphorically: “You were sold on account of something worthless, namely the evil inclination, which left you with no merit [causing your exile], and your redemption will come about without money, namely, through your repentance [making you worthy of redemption].”

Rashi has reframed the theology of this verse. Instead of a promise of divine providence, he has transformed it into a moral message intended to encourage behavior warranting redemption. This sort of message would not have been comforting to the generation of the prophet who were languishing in exile, but for sages in a different generation it held a significant message for a normative community.

The radical transformation in the meaning of this verse from its pshat or plain meaning to its drash or interpretive meaning provides us with a valuable lesson in how we read things. It reminds us that the reader is an active and not a passive participant in determining the meaning of what we read or experience and that our interpretation of a text or experience is very much shaped by who we are. The attentive reader can discover the different layers of meaning that a text might have. This awareness, along with a sensitivity to the context of both the text and that of the interpreter, opens the door not only to the universe of meaning in the text but to a better understanding of who we are.

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