Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Forty one Mitzvos
Establishment of judicial and religious institutions and practices…
o Court system
o Judges and police
o Supreme Court
o Priests and Levites
o Do not bend justice
o Do not show favoritism
o Do not take bribes
o “Pursue justice”
Trees and pillars used for idolatry are prohibited
Penalties for Idolatry
Prohibited practices include…
o Child sacrifice
o Fortune telling
Cities of refuge
Laws relating to witnesses
Preparing for war; military exemptions
Giving peace a chance
Destruction of fruit-bearing trees is prohibited during war
Egla arufa ceremony for an unsolved murder
A shining light to the world
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag explains that at the beginning of Sefer Devarim Moshe informs the nation that he would be teaching them the Torah laws in order for them to achieve the divine goal of becoming a shining light for all nations (Or La’goyim).The requirements included establishment of a National Center (Holy Temple)in Yerushalayim where…
Offerings would be brought
Tithes would be brought to eat or to give to the Levites
The nation would gather three times a year to celebrate.
The people were taught the mitzvahs that would help them become a holy nation including…
Observance of Shemittah (social and economic)
Warnings to avoid the surrounding influences that could hinder the ability to be ethical (national).
This Parsha continues with a discussion of governmental structure. First and foremost is the establishment of a fair and honest judicial system. This is followed by rules that create…
Leadership with separation of powers
Judge/shofet judicial system
Levi religious…civil servants
Prophet/navi religious guidance and national direction
King/melech political leadership
“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your gates (i.e., every city)…they shall govern the people with due justice…Justice, Justice you must pursue [tzedek, tzedek terdouf]…in order that you thrive and inherit the land.” Following soon after is the commandment to establish a Supreme Court (Sanhedrin) close to the National Center where any disputes that could not be decided by the local courts would be handled. The location of this highest authority for both halachic questions and civil disputes near the Holy Temple underscores the inextricable connection between Torah and Justice
The Torah appoints the entire tribe of Levi to…
• Officiate in the Temple
• Teach Torah
• Serve as judges in the Sanhedrin
The Torah prohibits the search for guidance from a wide range of local popular heathen oracles including…
• Those who casts spells
• Those who consult ghosts and spirits
• Those who make inquires of the dead
Instead, the Israelites should look to the prophet for spiritual guidance and through whom God will communicate His message. Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks cites Rambam who states that only when a prophet predicts good fortune can he be tested. (If this prophecy does not come true, he is a false prophet.) Non-fulfillment of predictions of calamities does not disprove the legitimacy of the prophet because one may have repented in the interim. Rabbi Sacks concludes that the prophet’s words are meant to serve as a warning to help the Israelites avoid any future disaster . The prophet’s mandate is “to be critical of the corruptions of power and to recall the people to their religious vocation whenever they drifted from it.”
None of these three are presented as a leader to tend to…
• Foreign and domestic policy
• Financial matters (taxing and spending )
• Engineering and construction (roads, towns, Holy Temple)
It appears that the task of running the country falls to the king.
Monarchy in Israel: commandment or concession?
“When you come to the land that God your Lord is giving you, and you have occupied and settled it, and you will say ‘we would like to appoint a king just like all the nations around us’ you will appoint the king whom God your lord shall choose…from among your brethren…The king must not accumulate many horses so as not to bring the people back to Egypt to get more horses…and he must not have many wives…he must write a copy of this Torah as a scroll [that] must be with him and he shall read from it all the days of his life…he will then learn to be in awe of God…and carefully keep every word of this Torah and these rules…so that he not begin to feel superior to his brethren…and will not stray from the mandate…”
Rabbi B.S. Jacobson discusses the question of whether this phraseology represents a concession in anticipation of possible future event or whether the text is requiring establishment of Kingship in Israel.
Rav Yehuda in the Talmud considers Kingship in Israel a Torah commandment, as are building a sanctuary and eradication of Amelek. Rav Nehray, on the other hand, views these words as anticipating a time when Israel will resent being different and will want to have a King like everybody else--and are advised that their request is acceptable with certain conditions. A Midrash expresses strong opposition: “Said the Holy One Blessed He: My children, I thought to deliver you from the subjugation of kingdom, and now you turn around and desire it for yourselves!”
Rav Saadya Gaon, Ibn Ezra and Ramban understand the text to mean that it is permissible, but not mandatory, to appoint a monarch. Abrabanel--who both witnessed and experienced royalty’s corrupt and arbitrary behavior and generally demoralizing influences--reasons that there is no need for a king in Israel to be commander of armed forces and supreme legislative authority and supreme judicial tribunal (often sentencing and punishing without justice). For one, kingship could only be considered after the land was conquered and settled. Furthermore, Israel’s Judges were competent to lead the nation in battle. Regarding legislative authority, a national leader in Israel is subject to Torah rule and has no authority to institute new or change existing laws. Judicial function is vested in the court system and the Sanhedrin.
Should the nation at some time in the future demand monarchy, the Torah delineates its regulation. The king must not…
• Keep too many horses
• Keep too many wives
• Amass too much wealth
But he MUST…
• Write down the laws of Sefer Devarim from in front of the priests and Levites
• Keep it [the scroll] with him
• Read it every day of his life in order that he learn to fear God
• Avoid haughtiness
• Not deviate from the Torah
Rambam stands almost alone in concluding that it is a commandment to appoint a king to rule over us, to whom we must be obedient and whom we must acknowledge with respect and reverence, so long as he is law-abiding.
Biblical scholar Rabbi David Hoffman points to the qualitative difference in Israel’s kings. Other nations typically appoint a hero/conqueror who then distributes land to his loyal followers and himself. This is in contrast to monarchy in Israel that could exist only after settlement in the land when it became clear that the land was a gift from God. The (relatively few) ideal Kings like David, Hezekiah and Josiah concentrated on purging pagan cults and enforcing Torah rule in Israel.
Rabbi Leibtag thinks that this is about political leadership in general (be it democracy, monarchy or theocracy) and that the Torah discusses the form of government that was prevalent at that time. As such, the “laws regarding the king could apply equally to the political leader in any system of government”.
Throughout history, our leaders were learned and scholarly. From King David and King Solomon who were both authors and knowledgeable in the ways of the world to David Ben Gurion who was both a voracious reader and prolific writer. Concludes Rabbi Sacks that “to be a Jewish leader means spending time to study both Torah [Israel’s moral and spiritual heritage] and chokhmah [worldly wisdom including science and humanities]: chokhmah to understand the world as it is, Torah to understand the world as it should be.”
The case of the unsolved murder—egla arufa
If a chalal (corpse) is found in an open field when the murderer is unknown, elders and judges (including members of the High Court in Jerusalem) are called upon to measure its distance to the closest city [to determine which city the victim lived in]. The elders of that city are required to bring an egla (female calf less than two years old) that has never been worked (and never pulled a load while wearing a yoke) to a nearby nachal aysan (swiftly flowing stream or wadi or harsh or fertile) where they decapitate the calf by striking the back of its neck (arufa). [Note: Perhaps this ritual links to the Israelites’ being characterized as a stiff-necked people or perhaps this a subtle reminder to the elders of the city’s stubborn refusal to adequately fund such vital public services as police; proper highway lighting; safety measures for travelers; and food and lodging for the homeless and the needy.]
Precision and persistence are necessary. To arrive at the correct measurement the judges may have to climb hills and descend into valleys. Sometimes even an inch difference determines which city is nearest.
The measurement is taken from the city to the nose of the corpse, the place through which the soul was breathed into the first man (Sota 44b). As in measuring for an eiruv, a rope fifty amahs in length is used to measure the distance. An amah is one and a half to two feet long.
The priests (whose responsibilities include resolving litigation and determining leprous signs) step forward. The elders wash their hands over the decapitated calf and say “our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes have not witnessed it”. The priests than pray “Forgive your people whom You, God, have liberated and do not allow the guilt for innocent blood remain with your people Israel”. Through this ceremony “the blood shall be atoned for and you shall rid yourself of the guilt of the innocent blood in your midst because you have done what is morally right in God’s eyes.”
The egla arufa calf is not a sacrifice, but a form of atonement—perhaps expiation for the blood that has been shed and absorbed by the Land. The ritual is observed only in the Land of Israel proper and in the Jewish lands east of the Jordan River. The area surrounding the Nachal Aysan may never be worked or sown like the corpse that can never yield offspring.
Understand the ceremony
• Rambam, ever the rationalist, reasons that the purpose is to find the murderer. In most cases the murderer likely came from that vicinity and the publicity relating to the investigation, including the arrival of prominent elders from Jerusalem would create a buzz that gets people talking. This publicity will result in the emergence of eye-witness testimony or other relevant information.
• Ramban disagrees and views the ritual an attempt to attain atonement on some level.
• Abrabanel and others cited by Nechama Leibowitz see the ritual as an attempt to shock the population out of the indifference that typically accompanies news of the death (and miseries) of others. In his poem, City of Slaughter, Chaim Nachman Bialik depicts how Nature continues unaffected in the wake of a bloody pogrom with gory human remains lying in the streets: “the sun shone, the acacia blossomed and the slaughterer slaughtered”. Unlike Nature, Man who is created in the Divine image needs to feel the horror of murder. The egla arufa rite prompts us to think about the tragedy of loss of even one single life and provides an opportunity for introspection.
• Rav Aaron Lichtenstein observes that the topic of egla arufa appears in the middle of the laws of war (between the laws of siege and the laws of the captive woman). During a war, it is possible for the individual soldier to lose his sense of identity, personal worth and contribution. He becomes subsumed to the collective, loses his significance, and is in danger of developing a militant and aggressive character. The ritual serves as a reminder of the exceptional value and preciousness of each and every human life.
We all share in the responsibility
Because it is unimaginable that these respected leaders actually committed the murder, the Talmud interprets the elders’ requirement to speak up and declare “our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes have not witnessed it” in a broader sense to mean that they were not even indirectly responsible for the death: “no one came within our jurisdiction whom we discharged without food and whom we did not see and whom we left without providing him an escort”. Malbim adds that lack of food may have been a factor in the commission of the murder. Too, the lack of an escort would have placed the victim in danger.
We no longer have the ceremony-- “When the number of murderers increased the egla arufa rite was abolished”-- but we do have the broader takeaway message. Every human life is unique and important. A violent death should shatter our complacency. A society is responsible for assuring a safe environment for its citizens. Laws must be enforced. There must be adequate lighting and police presence on our roads. We must encourage efforts to provide food, shelter and safety for the needy. We are obligated to identify and remove evil, violence and oppression in all forms.
“You shall thus rid yourself of [the guilt of] innocent blood in your midst, since you have done that which is morally right [hayashar] in God’s eyes.”
How are we to interpret this concluding verse of the egla arufa topic (and of the Parsha)?
It may be simply a summary of this ritual that achieves atonement for the spilt blood of the innocent corpse.
But the phrase “doing that which is morally right [hayashar] in God’s eyes” more typically has to do with moral behavior, not with ritual. Rashi’s comment is that we are being told to continue to seek out the murderer and bring him to justice even after the ceremony is complete because the pursuit of justice is the behavior that is correct in God’s eyes.
Because the phrase “doing that which is morally right [h’ayashar] in God’s eyes” usually connotes a more general, broad set of behavior rather than a specific act, Rabbi Leibtag, building on the idea of Ibn Ezra, concludes that here the Torah is providing us with good advice on how to lead our lives in such a way that will prevent recurrence of a tragedy like this. No murder would have taken place if only the Israelites would have taken the extra precautions needed to guarantee traveler safety. In all our behavior we should always act in a way that is right in God’s eyes by adhering toTorah laws and ethics.
The prefix “b” in the phrase “B’aynai Hashem” generally is translated to mean in or within. An alternate definition is using or utilizing. Translated this way, the commandment is for us to behave using “aynai Hashem”, the eyes of God, a term that means insight and deeper understanding of behavior to which God alone is privy. When we are dealing with our fellow Man, we are urged to try to use or utilize the same understanding and forgiveness that we would like God to use in judging us.