Bribery Disqualifies Respected Judge
לא תטה משפט לא תכיר פנים ולא תקח שחד… השחד יעור עיני חכמים ויסלף דברי צדיקים
“You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words” (Devarim 16:19).
The Torah portion this week talks about the severity of taking bribery. The Torah tells us that a judge may not take a bribe even if he previously made up his mind to rule in favor of the party giving the bribe. The Talmud (Ketubot 105a-b) tells us that bribery has many forms besides money; swatting a fly away from a judge, or giving him a hand to help him up the stairs, can be enough to disqualify a judge from adjudicating a case.
The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Yishmael who had a field worker bring his father, Rabbi Yossi, a basket of fruit every Friday. One Thursday he showed up with the basket early, and Rabbi Yishmael asked him why. The worker answered that he had to come into town for a court case before Rabbi Yishmael, and he decided that since he was coming anyway, he might as well bring Rabbi Yossi’s fruit a day early. Rabbi Yishmael had someone else judge the case. As the case proceeded, Rabbi Yishmael found himself continually thinking of ways to defend the worker. After this experience he said, “I was only going to get something that was mine anyway, and I didn’t judge the case, yet I was still trying to find ways to help this man. Imagine those who take real bribes. Undoubtedly they will find ways to help the bribing party!”
The Talmud explains that the etymology of the word shochad, bribery, is an amalgam of the two words “shehu chad” — “that he is one.” In other words, when you accept a bribe, you are psychologically linked with the giver. The same way you’ll always try to find ways to defend yourself, you’ll always try to defend the person with whom you became one by accepting his bribe.
This teaches us a powerful lesson in human relationships. Although bribing judges is forbidden, shochad can be a useful tool in other interactions: to motivate our employees, to encourage our children’s teachers, to strengthen friendships with our neighbors, and to bond with our families. This doesn’t have to mean extravagant gifts, but we could send our employees or children’s teachers a holiday bonus, or give our children or spouse an unexpected present for from time to time. By doing so, we will “become one” with them, and they will want to defend our best interests.
Pursuing Your Goals
צדק צדק תרדף למען תחיה וירשת את הארץ אשר ה’ אלקיך נתן לך
“Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the Land that your G-d, gives you.” (Devarim 16:20)
This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, opens with Moses’ imploring the Jewish people to establish a system of just courts. Judges must be above repute, and the pursuit of truth and justice must be paramount in their mind.
In stating this command, the Torah uses a double expression – “righteousness, righteousness (shall you pursue).” There is a general rule that not even one letter in the Torah is extra and certainly not an entire word. In fact, those seemingly unnecessary letters or words are laden with important messages. When a word is repeated, as it is here, it is thus not ‘extra’ and its message must be understood.
Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827) explains that the double expression admonishes not just judges, but all people. The pursuit of truth must be done with truth and not with falsehood.
This lesson itself however, seems superfluous as it is self-evident: one engaged in the pursuit of truth will surely not do so with falsehood!
The answer lies in the individual’s motivation. Many people, for example, are committed to working for a variety of important causes. As such, they are pursuing a goal of achieving righteousness and truth. The question though is how and why they are pursuing this goal. Is it being done exclusively for the sake of the cause or are there other, less-than-noble motivations mixed in?
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (known as the Sfas Emes, the Grand Rabbi of the Ger Chassidic Dynasty, 1847–1905), focuses on a related idea expressed by the Torah’s choice of the word “pursue,” in this verse.
In the original Hebrew, the word “pursue” or “pursuer” has a negative connotation. The word is usually associated with someone acting as an aggressor against an innocent victim. Here, though, “pursue” takes on a completely different meaning.
According to Rabbi Alter, mankind has no natural proclivity to pursue truth or justice. In fact, the human condition is just the opposite. Mankind tends to lie, to ignore injustice, and to make do with the status quo. For that reason, truth and justice are values that must be pursued with all our might if we are to have any chance of achieving them.
If we do not pursue these qualities, Rabbi Alter warns, they will escape us, because they are inconsistent with our natural state of being.
The following story illustrates both of these ideas: A wealthy man entered a yeshiva one day in search of a suitable match for his daughter. To ensure he would be selecting the best candidate available, the man presented a difficult Talmudic challenge to the assembled students and offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to whoever could present the correct answer. Throughout the day, students lined up and attempted to answer the question. One after the other failed miserably.
When he had exhausted the pool of candidates, the wealthy man picked himself up, boarded his horse and carriage, and headed out of town. As he reached the city limits, he paused for a moment to consider his direction.
Just then, he heard shouting in the distance. One of the young students was running towards him, calling for him to wait.
He finally caught up, and was barely able to catch his breath. Using all the strength he could muster, the student said: “I understand that no one merited your daughter’s hand in marriage. But I’m very anxious to know the answer to the question!”
Hearing this, the wealthy man looked at the student and said, “You are the one I want for my daughter!”
As we approach the High Holidays, life tends to get very busy. People are returning to work or school after the summer vacation, and we very quickly switch into “pursuing mode.” There is always the possibility that we will neglect to take time to review our higher goals and aspirations.
It is important not to let that happen, because having lofty goals is vital to our spiritual well-being. However, this is only part of the formula. It is equally important to make sure to keep a watchful eye on our true motivations and to invest our full energy into achieving those goals. Doing so will help us tap into the energy of the season and lay the groundwork for an inspiring year ahead.
Trust, a Double-Sided Coin
תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלקיך
“You shall be wholehearted with the L-rd, your G-d.” (Devarim 18:13)
In the Torah portion this week, the Torah is delineating the relationship we are expected to foster with G-d. Rashi explains that this means that we should trust in whatever G-d has in store for us. Even one who has the means to predict the future should not do so. Instead, one should confidently and wholeheartedly rely on G-d.
The story of Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud (Brachot, 60B) illustrates this point beautifully. Once while traveling, he came to a town where no one would give him lodging for the night. He said, “Whatever G-d does is for the best,” and went out into the nearby fields to sleep. As night fell, a strong wind came and blew out his only candle, leaving him in the dark. Then a large cat crept up and ate his rooster (alarm clock, Circa 70 CE). A few minutes later a lion came and ate his donkey, leaving him with nothing. After each loss, he repeated, “Whatever G-d does is for the best.”
In the morning, it became evident that a band of violent raiders had swept through town, pillaging the city, and taking the people as captives to be sold. Had Rabbi Akiva slept in town, had the raiders seen his candle or heard his animals, he would have been taken along with them. Rabbi Akiva’s total calmness in the face of challenging situations is the epitome of being wholehearted with G-d.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Chofetz Chaim), one of the greatest leaders of pre-war European Jewry, points out that there is an important flip side to this verse. The verse implies that it is only on G-d whom we must wholeheartedly rely. With human beings, however, we need to be cautious and judicious. While we have a commandment to give people the benefit of the doubt, it does not apply to areas that can affect us financially. In those situations, we need to carefully investigate the “facts” presented to us. The Torah recognizes this reality and doesn’t pretend that we live in Utopia.
We see this concept with our forefather, Jacob. The Torah contrasts him with his crafty brother, Esau. “The lads grew up, and Esau became one who knows hunting, a man of the field, but Jacob was a wholehearted man, living in tents” (Bereishit25:27). The sages explain that while Esau was a “hunter,” ensnaring people in his deceit, Jacob followed G-d unconditionally and studied in the tents of the yeshivah of Shem and Eiver.
Yet it was this very same Jacob who did not trust the ultimate scammer, Laban. He gave Rachel a secret code to try to prevent Laban from switching brides. He devised a method to ensure that he would receive his fair share of Laban’s flock. Jacob may have epitomized the value of trusting in G-d, but he is the same person who teaches us how careful we need to be before putting our resources on the line.
In G-d we trust; all others require a healthy background check!
וענו ואמרו ידינו לא שפכה [שפכו] את הדם הזה ועינינו לא ראו
“They shall speak up and say, ‘Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes did not see.’” (21:7)
When a corpse is found in the field, the elders of the nearest city are required to perform a unique ritual (called egla arufa). As part of the ritual, they must announce that they didn’t spill the blood of the deceased. The pious sages aren’t suspected of cold-blooded murder. Rather, Rashi explains that they must testify that they didn’t see this wayfarer leaving their city without escorting him and providing him with food. This requirement is difficult to comprehend. In what way would providing a traveler with food have protected him from a would-be murderer?
The answer may lie in a humorous, albeit fictitious, story. A proctor was administering a final exam for a large college class. After giving due warnings, the proctor announced that time had expired and all exam booklets must be brought forward, yet one student continued frantically writing.
When he brought his booklet forward a few minutes later, the proctor refused to accept it. The student bellowed, “Do you have any idea who I am,” implying that he came from a prominent family and deserved leniency. The proctor answered, “I don’t know, and I don’t care. You broke the rules, and now you’ve failed this course.” The wise student, secure in his anonymity, smugly opened the stack of exam books to the middle, stuck his book in, and quickly walked out the door.
Rabbi Yehuda Loew, more commonly known as the Maharal (1525-1609), explains that on a natural level, having extra food in his backpack wouldn’t have protected the traveler against armed robbers. On a spiritual level, however, it would have assisted him greatly. When a person exists in a vacuum, he is judged on the basis of his own merits (just as the student would have been, had the proctor known his identity). He may be righteous and merit the performance of miracles, but the average person is not on such a level. If so, what is he to do?
The Maharal explains that when a person is part of a larger community, he is able to benefit from their accumulated merits, just as the anonymous student blended in with the rest of the class. This may protect him even if his own merits are insufficient.
When the traveler is lodging in the town, he is automatically part of the community. When he sets out on his own, he breaks this bond. Escorting him on the beginning of his journey and giving him food allows him to maintain his connection to the community even when he is traveling on his own. A town which allows a visitor to depart without cementing the connection between them is partially liable for any misfortune that befalls him. It may have been in their power to prevent it, and the elders of the town closest to the corpse are required to testify that this wasn’t the case.
As the month of Elul begins and a person prepares for the impending judgment of Rosh Hashana, he may find comfort in the message of the Maharal. We are all “travelers” through this world. If we live in our own vacuums, we will be judged on our own merits – a scary thought. However, if we affiliate ourselves with a community, becoming part of our synagogue and volunteering to help with communal organizations, we will benefit from their collective merits. As a result, we will enjoy an inscription for a year of health, happiness, and all good blessings!
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
The Torah admonishes (Devarim 16:19) judges against accepting bribes and warns that doing so will blind the eyes of the wise and twist the words of the righteous. How can the Torah refer to a judge who accepts bribes as “righteous”? (Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik quoted in Toras Chaim)
In issuing its warning against taking bribes, the Torah specifically addresses judges. Why would the Torah forbid the judge from accepting a bribe but not similarly prohibit the parties from giving a bribe? (Tosefes Brocha by Rabbi Boruch Epstein)
Q: When a person is convicted of a capital crime, the execution is carried out in a public manner (Devarim 17:13). Rashi writes that the Sanhedrin (court) waited until the next Yom Tov, when people would ascend to Jerusalem, to carry out the execution so that everybody would hear and talk about it. This was done to inspire maximum fear among the people in the hopes that such future executions would become unnecessary. The Mishnah (Makkot 7a) quotes one opinion which maintains that a Sanhedrin that carries out one execution in 70 years is considered to be a violent and bloody Sanhedrin. If such executions were so infrequent, how were they able to accomplish the desired deterrent effect?
A: Rabbi Aharon Bakst answers that this question may only be asked by one who has become accustomed and desensitized to the loss of human life. In the times of the Temple, the Jewish nation understood and appreciated the value of every person and every life to the extent that one public execution in 70 years caused such a national trauma and fear that another one became superfluous for at least that long. If we appreciated life with this proper perspective, we would be so shaken up by events like the Holocaust and the more recent tragedies in Israel that they would remain in our collective memory forever, inspiring us to proper repentance and rendering any future reminders unnecessary. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: If a Jew accidentally kills another Jew, the Torah requires him to flee to one of the designated Cities of Refuge, both for his protection and to atone for the fact that he caused another person’s death, even if it was unintentional. The Talmud (Makkot 10b) rules that signs must be placed along the roads indicating which path they should take to arrive at the cities of refuge. This requirement is difficult to understand. If the Torah is so concerned that travelers may not know the way and could get lost, why don’t we find a similar law requiring that signs be posted pointing the way to Jerusalem to assist those on their way to fulfill the mitzvah of ascending to the Temple on the three annual pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot)?
A: Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, more commonly known as the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933), explains that the person on his way to the City of Refuge is not a moral role model. Though he is only an unintentional murderer, G-d would not have allowed death to occur through him if he were completely righteous. As such, the Torah wants people to have as little exposure as possible to him. We therefore provide directions for him so that he won’t have to stop to obtain them by interacting with people. On the other hand, the Medrash relates that each year Elkanah would ascend to the Tabernacle in Shiloh and share his plans with everyone he encountered; encouraging them to join him in the mitzvah. Each time, he would take a different path so as to encourage all Jews to participate in the mitzvah. Rabbi Kagan suggested that there are no signs pointing the way to Jerusalem so that a person traveling there will be forced to ask the locals for directions, thereby enabling them to become exposed to the righteous and join them in the performance of mitzvot. Though most of us are (hopefully) not fleeing from an accidental murder, the lesson nonetheless applies to us. The people with whom we interact are impacted by us and also exert an influence on our thinking and actions. We should try our utmost to surround ourselves with people who will be positive role models for us and our families, and we in turn should strive to influence others by setting good examples for them. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: The Torah requires (Devarim 19:4-6) a person who accidentally kills another Jew to flee to one of the cities of refuge. In order to be protected from the deceased’s relative and blood-avenger, he must remain there until the death of the Kohen Gadol, at which point he is permitted to return to his community and family. Did this occur during the 40 years that the Jewish people traveled through the wilderness?
A: The Meshech Chochmah, written by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, derives from a verse in Bamidbar (20:29) that although this law was applicable during the 40-year sojourn of the Jews in the desert, with the accidental killer required to dwell in the camp of the Levites, such an episode never actually occurred during this entire period. The Torah relates that upon the death of Aaron, every single member of the Jewish nation cried and mourned his death, which Rashi explains was due to his tremendous efforts to pursue and make peace among quarreling parties. The Meshech Chochmah notes, however, that had there been even a single accidental murderer during that period, he wouldn’t have cried at the death of Aaron – the Kohen Gadol – but rather would have rejoiced at the event which secured his freedom. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Maimonides rules that if a student kills accidentally and is required to flee to a city of refuge, his Rabbi must accompany him in order to allow him to continue learning. He further rules that if the teacher must go to a city of refuge, his yeshiva must come with him so that he may continue teaching them. According to this, as a result of the carelessness of one student, the entire yeshiva must relocate. What wrongdoing could they have committed that caused them to suffer as result of his actions? (Darkei HaShleimus by Rabbi Shloma Margolis)
Although Moshe and Joshua separated six cities of refuge to which accidental murderers could flee, the Torah commands (Devarim 19:8-9) that an additional three be separated in the Messianic era. What need could there be for refuge for murderers in the peaceful Messianic period?
Before the Jewish people entered into battle, the nation had to give its enemy an opportunity to make peace. If the members of the city agreed to surrender, then the city would be spared. (Devarim 20:10-11)
- We are taught (see Shemot 22:1 and Talmud Berachot 58a) that if someone “comes to kill you, rise first and kill him.” As the Jewish people have seen that its enemies will attack without warning, why would the Torah insist that the Jewish nation pause in the midst of a war and call for peace?
- “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, do not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them, for from it you will eat, and you should not cut it down…” (Devarim 20:19-20) These verses are the source for a general prohibition against destroying a fruit tree. (See Maimonides, Laws of Kings, 6:8-10, and Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Shapira, Darchei Teshuva on Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh Deah 116:51.)
Since destroying a fruit tree is a general prohibition, why would the Torah view it as important to include it in the midst of a specific discussion on the laws of going to war against our enemies?
We read in this parsha about the two-part speech recited to those poised to go out to battle.
“Who is the man who has built a new house and not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in war and another man will inaugurate it. And who is the man who has planted a vineyard and has not redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in war and another man will redeem it. And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in war and another man will marry her.” (Devarim 20: 5-8)
- In this first section, the Torah addresses three categories of people: those who had initiated a house, a field, or a marriage, but had not yet benefited from the fruits of their efforts. These people are exempt from battle lest they die in battle before ever actualizing these endeavors. If the person would anyway die in battle, why would the fact that he had or hadn’t actualized his efforts make a difference?
- What makes the three categories unique that would exempt them from battle?
- The Torah continues, “Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, and let him not melt the heart of his fellows, like his heart.” (Devarim 20:8)
A fourth exemption is offered here for those who are afraid of battle, lest their sense of fear spread and dishearten others. The Talmud (Sotah 44a) cites the opinion of Rabbi Yosi Haglili that this “fear” is a fear of his sins, i.e., he fears being hurt in battle because of his sins. The purpose of the other three exemptions, as understood by Rabbi Yosi Haglili, is to provide a cover, i.e., so as not to bring attention and embarrass the person opting out because of his sins. Rabbi Yossi’s solution seems deficient. Why wouldn’t the Torah be equally concerned that someone legitimately leaving for one of the first three reasons be pegged (by others not knowing his personal circumstances) as a sinner?
Q: In listing the people who are permitted to return home from the battle front, the Torah includes (Devarim 20:8) one who is afraid and weak-hearted. Rashi explains that this refers to a person who is fearful that the sins which are in his hand will cause him to die in the battle. How is it possible for sins to be in one’s hand more than they are in his heart or on his soul? Additionally, why doesn’t he merely confess and repent his sin, which will effect immediate forgiveness and allow him to remain and fight?
A: Rabbi Shalom Shwadron suggests that Rashi specifically referred to the sin as being “in his hand” to hint to the fact that he has yet to relinquish his improper actions and is still figuratively holding on to them. The reason that he is unable to simply repent his actions is that he doesn’t want to! Nevertheless, although he is unwilling to admit the error of his ways and correct them, he is still intellectually cognizant of their impropriety and therefore fears the consequences of placing himself in the danger of war. Although he recognizes that his actions could lead to his death, he is still unable to release them from his hand due to the tremendous force of habit. As we begin the difficult work of honestly evaluating ourselves and attempting to improve and grow throughout the month of Elul, the first step is to understand that one of the greatest weapons in the evil inclination’s arsenal is the power of habit, a recognition which will allow us to loosen our grips and completely release the sins from our hands. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
“Judges and policemen shall you appoint for yourself in all of your cities that Hashem, your G-d, is giving you for your tribes; who will judge the people righteous justice.” Devarim 16:18
Judges – These are the judges who clarify and teach the law to the people.
Policemen – These are the officers responsible for enforcing the law of the rabbinical courts.
In all your gates – In every city there must be courts and judges. – Rashi
Judges and Policemen – This refers to the Great Sanhedrin [High Court of Israel], whose seat was in Jerusalem and issued rulings on behalf of the entire nation.
In All Your Gates – This refers to Minor Sanhedrins [Lower Courts] comprised of only 23 members and were established in every city. – Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor
Judges and Policemen shall you place –Rabbi Eliezer taught, ‘Where justice is present, there is no justice, and in a place where there is no justice, there, justice is found’. What can this cryptic statement possibly mean? If justice is meted out on earth, then justice is not meted out through heaven. If, however, the responsibility to mete out justice on earth is abdicated, then Heaven will be forced to render justice.”
The obligation to ensure an equitable system of justice is very high on the Torah’s list of priorities. It is not only obligatory on every Jew, but it is one of the Seven Noahide Laws, as well. Historically, societies that chose to ignore this requirement rarely lasted very long, as they descended into anarchy within a short time and disintegrated. Just as the Medrash wrote, where human justice was abandoned, Heaven was forced to take matters into its own hands.
FIXING THE BLINDS
“Do not pervert justice; do not display favoritism; and you shall not accept bribery, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts truthful words.” Devarim 16:19
For Bribery Blinds – Once he accepts a bribe, it is impossible for him not to be partial, and steer the verdict in his favor. – Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105)
Although widely admired and highly sought after, clarity of thought somehow manages to elude most of its pursuers. This, the Torah tells us, is largely attributable to the myriad biases and self-interests that we possess and may, or may not be aware of. These prejudices cannot be randomly dismissed for they are virtually guaranteed to impact our thoughts and deeds. One of the primary tasks of a Jew is to identify the biases we possess in each area, and one by one, work to overcome them, and live a truth-driven life.
IT’S NOT JUST JUSTICE
“Justice, justice you must pursue so that you will live and inherit the Land that your G-d, gives to you.” Devarim 16:20
Justice, justice you must pursue – The reason the word “justice” is repeated is for emphasis. It also denotes that we must pursue truth  in our actions and  in our words. – Rabbenu Bachya
Justice, justice you must pursue – The word “justice” is repeated to emphasize the importance of choosing a reputable and reliable Beit Din [Jewish court], and that the Beit Din must do all in their power to ensure a fair outcome. – Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor
Justice, justice you must pursue – The word “justice” is reiterated to highlight the importance of seeking the most qualified Beit Din available even if less qualified Batei Din are available as well. Justice is too important to relegate to an acceptable Beit Din when a more qualified entity is available. – Ohr HaChaim
Rabbi Simchah Bunim of Peshischah explained the repetition as follows: Often, those who pursue justice utilize any means available, even means that are less than just. In their zeal to create better conditions for some, they cause others to suffer unjustly or infringe upon their rights. Such an approach is not sanctioned by the Torah. Rather, justice must be pursued with justice, and anything less is unacceptable. The word justice is repeated to explain that justice must be used when pursuing justice.
“And do not erect for yourself a monument that Hashem, your G-d, abhors.” Devarim 16:22
That G-d abhors – He abhors a stone monument when it is used for Divine worship. It is permitted however, to erect a stone monument in memory of a deceased person as Jacob did for Rachel and David for Absalom. – Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor
Do not erect for yourself a monument – A single-stone monument for sacrificial offerings, even for the sake of Heaven.
That G-d abhors – An altar made of stones or an earthen altar is acceptable, but he detests a single-stone monument, because it was in the canon of the Canaanites. Although He cherished it during the times of the patriarchs who built many such monuments, He now detests it, since they included it in the idolatrous ritual. – Rashi
Although the Canaanites also used multi-stone altars in their idolatrous worship, this did not become forbidden, for it is not a practice unique to them. The only practice abhorred by the Almighty was one that they were unique in practicing, not a universal practice that they too, utilized. – Maharal
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), better known as Netziv, explains in his commentary titled Ha’amek Davar, that the difference between altars and single-stone monuments is that altars were only used to facilitate idol worship, but they didn’t become the object of worship themselves. Monuments, however, were deified by the Canaanites, and that’s why the Almighty detested them so strongly. There are many parallels to this law in modern life, and while it’s important to be loyal citizens of our host countries, we must also be vigilant against allowing ourselves to become influenced by pagan practices that are anathema to our belief system.
“It shall be, that when he [the king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself two copies of this Torah in a scroll form…It shall be with him and he is to read in it all the days of his life…” Devarim 17:18,19
It Shall Be With Him – One Torah scroll must be stored in the kings’ treasury and the other, he must carry with him at all times. – Rashi
The quintessential Jewish leader is the king, whom the Torah vests with an inordinate amount of power. Yet, in an effort to ensure that he never abuse this power or lead the people astray, the Torah mandated that the king always consult the Torah to determine the right and proper course of action in every situation. This suggestion, while directed at Jewish monarchs, should be de rigueur for every single Jewish leader. When an individual poses as a Jewish leader but fails to solicit and abide by the advice of the Torah, the ultimate Jewish authority, he demonstrates his complete lack of suitability for the venerated title of “Jewish leader.”
“It shall be with him and he is to read in it all the days of his life…” Devarim 17:19
He is to read in it all the days of his life – Although every single Jew is obligated to study Torah every day of his life, a king is expected to do so even more, because the leaders of the people must work very hard to ensure that they breed fear of G-d within themselves. – Netziv-Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), [Heemek Davar]
He is to read in it all the days of his life – Ideally, a king, even one who is very proficient in the Torah, should not rely on his memory and should always consult his Torah books before rendering a ruling. This ensures accuracy and eliminates the possibility of errors which are far more damaging when committed by a leader upon whom the people depend. – Gadol M’Minsk
In the name of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, 1720-1797) it is said that the verse should be understood as follows: the king should read in it all that he needs to know about that which will occur “all the days of his life.” This is because the Torah contains within it everything a person will need to know as he travels through life, whether as a private individual, or as a leader of the people. No king may act without consulting the Torah first to determine whether the path he is prepared to embark upon is sanctioned by the Torah. If he examines it closely, he will find the answer to his dilemma.
“There shall not be for the Kohanim, the Levites, the entire tribe of Levi – a portion or an inheritance with Israel…And this will be the stipend of the Kohanim from the people, from those who perform a slaughter…he will give the Kohein the foreleg, the jaw, and the maw [fourth stomach]” Devarim 18:1, 3
Unlike the rest of the nation, the Kohanim or Leviim did not receive a share in the land [other than a place to live], and lacked a means of earning an independent livelihood. Their primary support came from the people to whom they ministered in the capacity of spiritual leaders, mentors, and ritual slaughterers. This arrangement ensured that the people would never lack for spiritual succor, but also depended on the people’s willingness to support those who dedicated their lives to this hallowed mission. Nowadays, members of multiple tribes fill the ranks of the rabbinate whose job it is to provide these vital services, but our obligation to support them remains very much in force.
“You must remain totally faithful to Hashem your G-d.” Devarim 18:13
Remain totally faithful – Walk with Him in perfect trust, in anticipation of Him. Do not explore the future, rather, whatever befalls you, accept with perfect trust. Then, you will be with Him, and He will take you as His portion. – Rashi
Totally faithful – Do not combine your service of Him with that of another deity. Your faith must be in Him alone. – Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach)
Totally faithful – The Hebrew word for this is “Tamim,” and its first letter, Tav, is enlarged. This symbolizes that one who is totally faithful to the Almighty is considered to have fulfilled the entire Torah represented by all the letters of the Aleph Beit that begins with the Aleph and end with the Tav. – Baal HaTurim
Nachal Kedumim points out that the phrase “Tamim Tehiyah” – remain totally faithful, has a numerical value of 910. This is the same numerical value as the Jewish month of Tishrei, hinting to the fact that especially during this auspicious time of year, it is imperative to be as loyal and faithful to the Almighty as possible. The more one does so, the greater his chances of a favorable judgment on Rosh Hashanah when G-d reviews our faithfulness.
MISUSING OUR “EYES”
“You are not to exercise compassion: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, hand for a hand, foot for a foot.” Devarim 19:21
Eye For An Eye – This refers to monetary compensation for the afflicted eye. Similarly, “a tooth for a tooth, etc.” – Rashi
This law is mentioned two other times in the Torah [Shemot 21:24, Vayikra 24:20] and each time, the commentators stress that it is not to be understood literally, but rather, refers to monetary compensation. This is not mere apologetics either, as it was written at a time when the general custom in society was to actually sever the limb in retaliation. Nowhere in Jewish history is such an approach recorded, and it is only due to widespread ignorance and popular Christian rendition, that such an approach is considered authentically Jewish, when in fact, it is not.
JEWISH HEAR O’S
“And it will be when you approach the war and the High Priest shall approach them and speak to the people. And he shall say to them, ‘Hear O’ Israel, you are setting out on this day to do battle with your enemies. Do not be fainthearted; or intimidated, and do not panic, and do not be crushed before them.” Devarim 20:3
Hear O’ Israel – “Even if all you have in your hands is the merit of [the mitzvah of] Shema Yisroel [Hear O’ Israel] alone, that will suffice to save you [from the hands of your enemies].” – Rashi
It is said that a group of Jewish soldiers who were conscripted into the army visited the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) on Tisha B’Av of the year 5674 . During their meeting he advised them to recite Shema Yisroel continuously, whenever they found themselves in a dangerous situation. He explained to them that the Talmud teaches that Torah study protects a person from harm and since every Jew is familiar with the meaning of Shema Yisroel, this is an easy chapter of Torah to study during a time of danger. I would add that the Shema is also the clearest declaration of our faith in G-d’s mastery of the universe, and the inability of anyone to lift a hand against us unless He so desires. The merit of doing so is a sure means of ensuring that our pursuers will be rendered powerless to harm us.
“The officers shall then continue speaking to the people and say, ‘Is there any man among you who is afraid or fainthearted? Let him return home rather than have his cowardliness demoralize his brethren.’” Devarim 20:8
Who is afraid or fainthearted – Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yosi of Gallilee debate what this means. Rabbi Akiva explains it to refer to one who is truly afraid of warfare and cannot bear the sight of an unsheathed sword. He must return home, for his presence will demoralize his comrades in arms. Rabbi Yosi explains it to refer to one who may have sinned and whose sins will render him vulnerable in battle and thus he is exempted. To preserve his honor, the Torah also exempts one who has recently built a house or planted a vineyard. That way, no one will suspect that the true reason he is leaving is because of sins, but will assume instead that he belongs in one of the other categories. – Rashi
He shall go and return home – One is not trusted to merely claim that he has sinned or built a home or planted a vineyard, but is required to produce evidence to back up his claims. Otherwise, many who are not entitled to an exemption would take advantage of this provision in the law. – Talmud Yerushalmi, 8:9
He shall go and return home – This exemption only applies when the war is not mandated by the Torah. In a war that is mandatory upon the people, such as that waged to conquer the Land of Israel, everyone is obligated to fight without exception. – Talmud, Tractate Sotah 44b
The fact that one has been exempted for any of the aforementioned reasons does not mean that he is exempt from participating in the war effort altogether. Rather, he must serve the needs of the warriors by serving them food, preparing their weapons, manning supply lines, and doing anything else, so long as it does not place him directly in the line of fire.
GOOD REPS AND BAD RAPS
“If a corpse is found in the land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you to inherit, fallen in the field, it is not known who smote him. Your elders shall go out, and your judges, and measure in the direction of the cities around the corpse…” Devarim 21:1, 2
Measure in the direction of the cities – In every direction, in order to determine which is closest. – Rashi
Your elders shall go out – The purpose of this elaborate ritual involving the leading members of the Sanhedrin along with many others was to publicize the events and to hopefully generate tips to help locate the murderer. The Elders had to publicly state that they had no knowledge of the identity of the culprit, and this was a strong deterrent against the possibility of their withholding information in the interests of political considerations. – Rabbeinu Bachya
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt”l explained that the entire Parshat Shoftim deals with various obligations of judges and magistrate whose duty it was to uphold the words of the Torah. In order to do so effectively, they had to be men of impeccable character. That is why Parshat Shoftim concludes with the laws of Eglah Arufah (the special procedure to be followed when a person is killed by an unknown murderer and his body is found in a field), for those laws emphasize the need for the Elders to zealously guard their reputations. By forcing them to publicly state that they had no hand in this murder, even in an indirect manner, it becomes abundantly clear that they must go to great lengths to avoid any behavior that can sully their reputations.
NO WORMING OUT OF IT
“You shall thus rid yourself of [the guilt of] innocent blood in your midst, for you have done what is right in the eyes of G-d.” Devarim 21:9
You shall rid yourself of innocent blood – This teaches that if they find the killer, even after having completed the Eglah Arufah service, he must be executed, for this is moral in the eyes of the Almighty. – Chizkuni
You shall rid yourself of innocent blood – If the verse refers to the killer, why does it refer to the innocent blood of the victim? The blood of the victim can find no rest and bubbles until justice has been served. By executing the killer, the blood of the innocent victim will be laid to rest. – Rivah
It is mentioned in numerous Torah works (Me’iras Eineim, Chidah, Sifsei Kohen, Rikanati) that from the carcass of the slain calf eventually emerges a worm [or many worms] that attack the killer and eventually cause his demise. A mystical allusion to this can be found in the last letters of the first words of this verse, “V’attah Tiva’er Dam HaNaki,” which, when rearranged, spell the word “rima” – worm.
Hey, I Never Knew That
“You shall be wholehearted with the L-rd your G-d” (Devarim 18:13).
From the context of this commandment it seems that the Torah is exhorting us not to engage in superstition, necromancy, astrology, and other types of divination. The Code of Jewish Law understands that the mitzvah of being “wholehearted” in our relationship with G-d means that we should not engage in any type of fortune-telling or looking into the future, even by means that are kosher and do not involve any type of idolatrous practices (O.C. 664:1). One of the world’s greatest kabbalists, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Hillel, goes even further and maintains that part and parcel of fulfilling this mitzvah is to refrain even from going to kabbalists and other rabbis to find out the future. Rather, one should take steps required by the Torah and the world of nature, pray to G-d for success and trust in G-d without knowing the future (Faith and Folly: The Occult in Jewish Law)
“Do not move your neighbor’s boundary marker, which was set in place by the first settlers…” (Devarim 19:14).
The simple meaning of this verse is the prohibition against stealing land by moving the border marker. However, numerous sources (Rav Sherira Gaon, Responsa Tashbetz 2:136, Torah Temimah ad loc) explain that the verse also prohibits abandoning the customs of our ancestors, “the borders that the early ones set.” Philo Judaeus (circa 20 BCE to 50 CE), a Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt (The Special Laws, IV: 149-150), writes that “this injunction is given… as a guard to ancient customs; for customs are unwritten laws, being the doctrines of men of old, not engraved on pillars or written on paper, which may be eaten by moths, but impressed in the souls of those living under the same constitution.”
Word of the Week
“You shall appoint judges and שוטרים — shotrim in all your gates…” Rashi translates שוטרים as “officers to enforce the dictates of the courts and judges” — in other words, police officers. This is also the word for police in Modern Hebrew. The Ibn Ezracommentary and Rabbi David Kimchi understand the word as ruler or authority, and Rabbi Kimchi relates this to the Talmudic usage of a similar word, ,שטר for a document of command, instructions, or agreements. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch relates the word phonetically to סתר — seter — protect or hide; סדר — seder — arrange; and סטר — satar — to hit (Etymological Dictionary).
“If a חלל—challal is found in the land… (Devarim 21:1). Challal refers to a human corpse and, based on the context, specifically to a murder victim, as Targum Onkelos and Yonatan translate it. Human life is holy, and therefore the murder of a person is an act of desecration which is implied by challal whose root is חול—profane or devoid of holiness (Rabbi David Kimchi, Sefer Hashorashim). Challal also means space or vacuum and may be a reference to the idea that the dead body is empty, lacking its soul, and is therefore like a spiritual vacuum (Rabbi Moshe Shapiro).
The Torah prohibits the king from accumulating too many horses “so as not to bring the people back to Egypt… G-d has said that you must never again return on that path” (Devarim 17:16). Many rabbis have addressed the question of how Jews could have lived in Egypt in light of the above verse. There has been a Jewish community there for thousands of years, and many great scholars (Maimonides, David ben Zimra, et al) have lived there. Rabeinu Bachya, in his commentary on the Torah portion this week, suggests that the prohibition was only in force when Egyptian culture was corrupt and idolatrous, but in later times it was no different from other countries. The Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Prohibition 226) maintains that since King Senacherib of Assyria exiled and forcibly resettled all the nations in the Middle East, Egypt is no longer looked at as the Egypt of the Bible. Rabbi Shaul Nathanson (Shoel Umeishiv 4:107) holds that the prohibition only applies when, as the verse states, one is bringing “the people back to Egypt.” If, however, one is not moving the entire nation to Egypt but just a small segment, then it is permitted.
The Torah prohibits destroying fruit-bearing trees even during a siege of an enemy city (Devarim 20:20). Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch was asked if it is permitted to remove a non-fruit-bearing tree that is causing damage to a building. He responded that the Torah clearly permits this as the verse states, “Those trees that you know to be non-fruit-bearing, you may destroy.” However, there are later sources that maintain that if one destroys a tree of any type they will “not see blessings from this” and so Rabbi Shternbuch says that if possible one should ideally sell the tree to a non-Jew and have him transplant the tree to another location rather than destroy it. However, if that is not possible, there is no legal prohibition against its destruction if it is not fruit-bearing and is causing damage (Responsa Teshuvot Vehanhagot 5:391).
Parsha at a Glance
The portion begins with the famous injunction, “Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue,” and goes on to focus on the establishment of a just court system in the Land of Israel. The judges were warned that their activities had to be above reproach. As leaders of the nation, they had to realize that their conduct exerted a powerful influence on the people, both for good and for bad. Thus, the very life and ability of the Jewish people to remain in the Land of Israel depended on the existence of righteous courts.
Additionally, the Torah forcefully warned that the decisions of the Sanhedrin (High Court) had to be obeyed not only by the people, but by other judges as well. There was no room to judge and act against the Sanhedrin once a judgment has been handed down. The reason for this is self-evident: Judges have been granted the power to interpret the laws of the Torah on a day-to-day basis. If respect for the courts breaks down, anarchy and the downfall of the nation is not far behind.
While discussing the need for righteous courts, the Torah reminded the nation of the need to maintain purity and righteousness in the Temple service as well. Blemished offerings could not be brought in the Temple, and the idol worshipper had to be put to death.
After warning of the need for the elders to listen to the judgments of the Sanhedrin, the Torah imposed the death penalty on any elder who willfully rebels against the Sanhedrin.
In addition to just courts, the Torah discusses the laws governing the establishment of a Jewish monarchy. The Jewish king must be a member of the Jewish people, must not amass an inordinate amount of wealth, or marry too many wives. Both, in excess, will lead the heart of the king away from G-d and the Jewish people.
In keeping with the theme of discussing the privileges and duties of the leaders of the nation, the Torah briefly reviews the gifts given to the Kohanim in exchange for their service in the Temple and on behalf of the nation. The Kohanim and the Levis received no inheritance in the Land of Israel, and the Torah provided for their livelihood by assigning them gifts from the rest of the people.
The nation was warned not to fall prey to the words of a false prophet or any number of types of necromancy and idol worship. G-d promised that the nation would be sent true prophets, who would speak in His name and guide the nation on the proper path to pursue.
The portion also reviews and expands on the laws establishing the Cities of Refuge, which were to be set aside as sanctuaries for individuals guilty of inadvertent murder. The importance of maintaining the inheritance boundaries and of punishing witnesses who conspire to present false testimony in court are also reviewed.
As a nation situated in the midst of hostile enemies, the Jewish people had to be prepared to go to war, which also had to be conducted according to the laws of the Torah. Before amassing an army, the officers had to cleanse the soldiers of anyone who may have not been prepared to commit fully to the battlefield. This includes: someone who has built a new home and not yet inaugurated it; someone who has planted a vineyard and not yet redeemed it; someone who has become betrothed to a woman and not yet married her; and someone who is fearful.
The understanding here is that the fear is generated by a person’s sense that his conduct has been less than desirable, and he is concerned that he may not merit the protection needed in a dangerous time such as battle.
Additionally, the Jewish people may not wage war indiscriminately. Overtures of peace must first be made, and even in battle, the army is prohibited from destroying fruit bearing trees in the process of laying siege.
The portion concludes with the laws of conduct in the wake of an unsolved murder. If a body is found in a field, the nearby cities must participate in an atonement ritual. The ritual includes taking an axe to the back of the neck of a heifer that has not yet be used for work or other human needs. The elders of the city closest in distance to where the victim was found must wash their hands over the heifer and declare that their hands have not spilled innocent blood and that that they had no involvement in the tragedy.