Archive for Shoftim

Shoftim: Roads Teaching Mercy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

Shalom from the muggy `burbs of Boston!

Our nation is currently engaged in debate about who was responsible for what in
the wake
of the recent hurricane. Fittingly enough, this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim,
is also
concerned with issues of justice, authority, civil society, and the
responsibility of
community leaders. Judges must be impartial, society must entrust its leaders
with the
difficult task of interpreting the law and deciding cases, and even the king is
not above the
law of the land.

In Chapter 20, we learn that warfare is to be conducted according to rules of
fairness and
moral seriousness- for example, fruit trees are not to be destroyed during the
siege of a
city, since they will provide food long after the war is over. “Cities of
refuge” are to be
established for those who commit accidental manslaughter, and local authorities
must
repent publicly if there are unsolved acts of violence near their boundaries.

We discussed the “cities of refuge” a few weeks ago,* but it’s a concept worth
revisiting in
both this time of introspection on the Jewish calendar and the current news from
the Gulf
Coast. The basic idea is that someone who commits accidental manslaughter must
be
given refuge in special marked cities, where he or she will be safe from the
“blood
avenger” of the victim’s family. The cities of refuge first appeared in the book
of
Bamidbar/ Numbers, but this week’s recapitulation adds a few new details:

“. . . you shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land,
which the Lord,
your God, is giving you to possess. Prepare the road for yourself and divide
into three
parts the boundary of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an
inheritance,
and it will be for every killer to flee there. . . . ” (Devarim/ Deuteronomy
19:2-3)

Our teacher Rashi explains that the details of “preparing the road” and dividing
the land
into three parts are to make it easier to find and flee to the nearest “city of
refuge.”
Preparing the road meant putting up road signs at intersections, pointing the
way to the
nearest city of refuge, and the land was to be divided equally so that the the
cities were
equidistant from each other. There should not be a greater distance from one
part of the
country to the nearest sanctuary than from another part of the country- that
wouldn’t be
fair to the accidental killer who happened to be in a remote village.

What I find so moving about Rashi’s explanation is the idea that we know in
advance that
people will make terrible mistakes, and we nevertheless treat these people with
respect
and dignity in their seeking of sanctuary from the angry mob. The very idea of
the city of
refuge is to have society embrace an ideal of justice, which requires renouncing
vengeance
and a commitment to careful distinctions of judgement. It is not justice to
treat murder
and manslaughter equally; therefore, the accidental killer is accorded the right
to safety,
which would be compromised if it were confusing or difficult to find the city of
refuge.

To put it another way, signs at every intersection pointing the way to the “city
of refuge”
mean that every time one walked along the road there would be a reminder of the
society’s
ideals of fairness and renunciation of revenge. These values would be literally
built into the
walls of the community, through the placement of the cities equal distances from
each
other. Society would be founded – in the most literal sense- upon principles of
justice, and
the roads would teach concepts of mercy, which would then surely transform
relationships
throughout the wider community.

Roads teaching mercy? Cities built with justice in mind?

This is the Torah’s challenge: nothing less than the fundemental orientation of
individual hearts and communal structures towards fairness and mercy, with
sanctuary and
understanding (which does not mean total lack of consequences) for those who
inevitably
fall short. Human imperfection does not overcome the possibility of human
dignity; this is
the deepest value of the city of refuge.

rnjl

* This message will probably make more sense when compared with my earlier
discussion
of the cities of refuge:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/rabbineal-list/message/51

PS- as usual, you can read the Torah and haftarah and various commentaries here:

http://www.hebcal.com/sedrot/shoftim.html?tag=fp.ql

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Shoftim 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

OVERVIEW

The word shoftim means “judges.” Issues of jurisprudence and social ethics predominate in this Torah portion, including guidelines for the behavior of courts of law, elders in the community, the king, prophets, priests and even warfare.

IN FOCUS

“You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. ” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

PSHAT

In order to have a just and fair society, there must be institutions which make justice happen, and which can settle disputes. These institutions must be scrupulously fair and ethical themselves, or else the entire system falls apart. Thus, “thriving on the land” is dependent on an orderly and fair justice system- society can’t thrive if there are no mechanisms of justice.

DRASH

Our passage this week seems to have two underlying assumptions: the first is that institutions of justice are needed in order to make justice happen, and the second is that establishing such institutions is not the same as actually achieving a just society. Look at the flow of the three verses quoted above: first we are told to appoint judges, then we are warned that those judges might misbehave, and finally we’re reminded of the very reason to appoint judges- so that justice may be pursued. The institutions are the means to an end, but not the end itself.

The famous repetition of the word “justice” in verse 20 has inspired many commentaries and homilies, although it’s also possible that it is merely a stylistic device, employed for emphasis. Thus, Jeffrey Tigay, in the JPS Torah Commentary, interprets “justice, justice shall you pursue” as “only justice,” or “justice alone.” This is a very plausible reading, given that the whole passage seems to be stressing the idea that human institutions can go astray from their founding ideals.

Rashi, on the other hand, has a very different reading. He says that “justice, justice shall you pursue” means “seek out a fair court of law” [beit din]. The word I’ve translated as “fair” is literally translated as “beautiful,” [ya’fey] probably implying “excellent.” A later commentator, Alshich, points out that Rashi seems to think that verses 18-19 are directed at judges and leaders, while verse 20 (“justice, justice. . “) is directed at potential litigants, the people who will appear before the court. Alshich goes on to say that a court can only apply the law, while the litigants must pursue larger goals, including perhaps compromising and making peace, even if the strict letter of the law does not require it.

I think Rashi’s interpretation, based on earlier text, is quite interesting, for it suggests that both the seekers of justice and those entrusted with its enactment have a responsibility to keep these larger goals in mind. Those who use the courts- or social service agencies, or the media, or the legal system, or governmental agencies- are just as commanded to seek justice as those who work in those institutions. Rashi seems to be saying that it’s hard to have a good result if the institution itself is not “excellent”- so choose institutions wisely, and make sure that justice, and not just the legal process, is really the goal. Of course, this idea applies anytime someone confuses laws or policies with goodness and truth- the former are the means to the latter, never its substitute.

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Shoftim 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shoftim

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

OVERVIEW

The word shoftim means “judges;” issues of jurisprudence and social ethics predominate in this Torah portion, including guidelines for the behavior of courts of law, elders in the community, the king, prophets, priests and even warfare.

IN FOCUS

“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 the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed.” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

PSHAT

This whole section of the parasha deals with rules for warfare, setting limits on what the Israelite army may do even in the heat of battle. In these verses, “scorch and burn” warfare is prohibited; the Israelite army may not destroy the source of sustenance of the enemy city, even if they are seeking to conquer it.

DRASH

Beginning in the time of the Talmud, these verses were understood to apply to all of life, not just a time of war. The rabbis derived from these verses a principle called bal taschit, or “do not destroy,” which they formulated as a general prohibition against the destruction or wasting of anything potentially useful or necessary to sustain life. For example, the Talmud itself says

    Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal tashchit. (Kiddushin 32a)

Hundreds of years later, Maimonides applied the law to both trees and other objects, though he concedes that trees may be cut down as part of a thoughtful agricultural decision:

    It is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees outside a besieged city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so that they wither. Whoever cuts down a fruit-bearing tree is flogged. This penalty is imposed not only for cutting it down during a siege; whenever a fruit-yielding tree is cut down with destructive intent, flogging is incurred. It may be cut down, however, if it causes damage to other trees or to a field belonging to another man or if its value for other purposes is greater. The law forbids only wanton destruction…. Not only one who cuts down trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food with destructive intent transgresses the command “you must not destroy.” (Mishna Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8,10)

Because the principle of bal taschit demands that we refrain from engaging in destructive or wasteful actions, many contemporary Jews have understood it to be part of an emerging Jewish environmental consciousness. For example, some contemporary writers have suggested that a commitment to bal taschit in its original context might lead Jews to greater activism to prevent the wasteful exploitation or destruction of wilderness areas. On a more everyday level, bal taschit might serve as a religious language for greater conservation and recycling efforts on the part of Jewish homes and institutions.

The Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century explanation and discussion of each of the 613 commandments, finds an even deeper teaching embedded in the principle of bal taschit:

    The purpose of this mitzvah [bal tashchit] is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we will avoid all that is evil and destructive. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who are like demons, who rejoice in destruction of the world, and they are destroying themselves. (Sefer HaChinuch, #529)

According to this interpretation, acting to safeguard the beauty and abundance of the world is a measure of our appreciation of it. Inculcating a consciousness of our behavior is at the core of Judaism, as the teachings pertaining to sacred time and moral rigour might suggest. Bal taschit asks us to apply that same conscientiousness to the ecological consequences of our everyday actions; perhaps that kind of consciousness is an essential part of “righteousness” for our times.

PS- For those interested in more information on Jewish environmental activism and a more in-depth look at Judaism’s perspectives on environmental issues, the best place to start is the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

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