Tag Archives: Justice

Parshat Nasso (5774)


Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

Treachery and its Remedy: Setting things right in word and deed

_img-sefer-gavelAs we come into this week’s parsha we are walking in the middle of something. Previously, in the final verses of Parshat Bamidbar, we began to hear about the tasks and charge of the Kohanim (priests). But now in this week’s parsha we read about the assignment of the other Levitic clans, the sub-tribes of Gershon and Merari; the families who carried and assembled the tabernacle. Here in this week’s parsha is where the real nuts and bolts come together in this story about the establishment of the Mishkan – the desert tabernacle, the precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem. Everything and everyone is put in place.

Now it is very easy for readers, especially after all the detail on priestly duty and purity in our previous book of Levitivus, to just breeze over much of the early text in this section. Especially the modern reader, who is not as interested in the temple cult as much as they are the more philosophical themes that come with later mitzvot.

Quite often we lunge for the exciting parts. Even myself, in previous years I have found my mind focusing on the real attention getters like the curious ritual of the sotah – the strange custom imposed upon the suspected adulteress, a woman who has acted treacherously against her husband (כי תשטה אשתו, ומעלה בו מעל). She has been unfaithful to him. (see “Parshat Nasso 2011: The Ritual of the Sotah, the Offering of Jealousies”)

But this week I would like us to step back just a little bit in this text. As we are going to focus on this topic of unfaithfulness, most often described simply as treachery in English. But this time we will come in at ground level on this topic. Because the suggestion of adultery is not the only form of treachery one can commit. Treachery can be committed by and against any type of fellow, man and woman; and by extensions it can also be committed against G-d.

Treachery is actually a very good word to use for the Hebrew word ma’al – which means to embezzle, to misappropriate. This is understood to happen as a result of people breaching a relationship of trust, and thus acting treacherously – meaning faithlessly and dishonestly.

There is another type of treachery and breach of trust that is just as appalling and distasteful as adultery. And it is revealed for us here in the third reading of our parsha.

Even before we begin to hear about the issues of unfaithfulness in marriage, we are first forced to recognize and deal with faithlessness and a breach in trust in the generals sense, between one person and their fellow. This can be broadly applied, and is explicit in mentioning that this applies to both men and women. Our text reads:

Tell the children of Israel:

Any man or woman

who commits any sins against man

to act treacherously against Hashem

and that person is guilty,

then they shall confess the sin

they committed,

and make restitution for

the full amount of their guilt,

adding a fifth to it,

and give it to

the one against whom they were guilty.”

| Daber el-benei Yisra’el

| ish o-ishah

| ki ya’asu mikol-chatot ha’adam

| lim’ol ma’al b’Hashem

| ve’ashmah hanefesh hahi

| Vehitvadu et-chatatam

| asher asu

| veheshiv et-ashamo

| berosho

| vachamishito yosef alav

| venatan

| la’asher asham lo

Numbers 5:6-7

If we read this text just straight forward we see a very important principle relating to justice presented here. How to remedy a breech of trust. When one acts treacherously, when one is dishonest, when one engages in stealing from people. This is how we remedy any type of violation of trust. Any sin against man (כי יעשו מכל חטאת האדם), any sin of embezzlement or dishonest practice. A sin against our fellow-man.

One is required to confess their sin and pay back the full amount of restitution to that person, plus a 20% penalty for harming the person. All this is paid directly to the injured party. If they cannot be found, then it should be given to their next of kin. If a family member cannot be located then it is given to the kohain – to a priest.

But notice the way it is further phrased, “to act treacherously against Hashem.” (למעל מעל ביי)

Now there are a few ways we can read that. First, the most obvious and the most striking is the face-value statement. That when we commit any type of sin against any man or woman, we are acting treacherously with our G-d. We are acting faithless, we are being a cheater. Likewise we are creating a chilul Hashem – a desecration of the Name of G-d. We are trashing G-d’s good name.

When ever a person among the people of Israel commits a sin against his fellow-man, he is not just harming that man. He is also offending G-d. He is being like the sotah – he is being faithless and untrustworthy like an adulteress in our relationship with G-d. That is the level of breach of trust there is going on here.

Now our rabbinic tradition, it likes to suggest a more specific type of crime here. Tradition is that the Torah does not repeat itself, there are no superfluous verses in the Torah. Yet we already see other verses in the Torah related to stealing in Viyikra  (Leviticus).

With this in mind our sages further identify this related to take a false oath, in order to steal their fellow’s property. Thus literally creating a chilul Hashem – a desecration, but taking a false oath. Which is the meaning of commandment, “Do not use name of Hashem in vain.” (Exodus 20:7) Attaching the name of G-d to a lie and injustice. Causing the Name of G-d to be used inappropriately. Negating the good name of G-d.

So why here, and why again? As this is also suggested to us elsewhere in Torah. However our sages focus in on a specific act this time around. The Rashi, in line with many of the rabbis, identifies this crime as being gezel ha-ger – the sin of stealing from a convert, or an immigrant.

But before we talk about that the ger – the convert, I want us to notice one other point. Let us look at the commentary. Rashi says:

To act treacherously against G-d: [Scripture] repeats the section [dealing with] a thief who swears falsely, which is stated in parshath Vayikra; “… and acts treacherously against G-d by falsely denying to his fellow…” (Lev. 5:21). It is repeated here because two new matters are introduced. The first is that it is written: “they shall confess,” which teaches us that he [the thief] is not required to pay a fifth and [bring] a guilt [offering] when incriminated by two witnesses, until he admits to the deed himself, and the second [matter] is that what is stolen from a proselyte must be given to the kohanim. – [Sifrei Naso 1:13]

למעל מעל בה‘: הרי חזר וכתב כאן פרשת גוזל ונשבע על שקר, היא האמורה בפרשת ויקרא (ה, כא) ומעלה מעל בהוכחש בעמיתו וגו‘, ונשנית כאן בשביל שני דברים שנתחדשו בה האחד, שכתב והתודו, לימד שאינו חייב חומש ואשם על פי עדים עד שיודה בדבר. והשני על גזל הגר שהוא נתון לכהנים:

Rashi to Number 5:6

Notice what it says here. That the person who has embezzled, who has stolen is not required to pay for their crime until they confess. And that is what makes this type of justice different from what we know today. And vastly different from what we see in secular legal remedy. When taking on civil cases, for instance. In such instances people are required to pay the amount back – to put the person back into their right standing, as before they were deprived of their property. And often there is a punitive damage added. So a person settles all of their issues by paying up. But there it is no requirement for them to confess their wrongs. Often people still deny their guilt, even as they pay damages.

Our sages suggest that the process is incomplete if a person does not confess their sins. And I believe that is the most difficult point of this lesson. That when we wrong someone, we are required to confess the wrong we have done to them. Torah morality does not allow us to just silently throw money and make the problem go away. No, we are required to confess what we have done in order to put it behind us and set things right. To validate the reality of the wrongs we have done against people.

However, I have a personal observation. I believe that the need to confess is not just for the sake of the person wronged, and to do right by G-d. But it is also for the sake of the sinner. It is essential that a person recognize for themselves the wrong they have done, in order to make a correction in themselves. In order to lay it out all so that they never repeat this again. To stop hiding their sin in the background, by shedding light on it. Shattering that dark area in our lives. Liberating one from shame and guilt, and all the burden of denial.

As I stated, our rabbis take this discussion one step further. And Rashi, at the end of this commentary, in short makes the point that like others who have no next of kin the amount of recompense and damages against a convert is paid to the kohain instead. He focuses on the ger – the convert, the immigrant. Stealing from them while lying under oath. This is the specific sin that requires this seeming repeat in the principles of fair dealings. Of course, the prohibition against harming a ger is something often mentioned in our tradition, but to our rabbis it is more specifically connected to oath taking here.

Our tradition, is very strong on demanding that we do right by the stranger in our midst. That we do not harm the ger – the convert or the immigrant. And it challenges us more than just on a social-civil level. It challenges us to do right by them, so as not to harm the holy message of the Torah true life. To not desecrate the Torah and Judaism itself through our deeds.

Why is it so important that our rabbis constantly warn against doing wrong by the convert? I believe one of the most clear and concise ways of summing this up is done by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin – the well-known Torah scholar and inspirational writer:

“A person who comes to Torah on his own volition does so because of the beautiful and elevated ideas he hears regarding Torah principles. He made his decision on the assumption that those who follow the Torah will act toward him in accordance with all the Torah laws pertaining to interpersonal relations. If someone cheats him financially or in some other way wrongs him, he [the Ger Tzeddek; the Righteous Convert] will not only suffer a monetary loss. Rather, he might also feel disillusioned with his decision to accept a Torah way of life.

The Ger Tzeddek has usually given up very much because of his ideals and will experience much pain from his disappointment that the people he is in contact with do not meet the Torah standards he expected of them. The importance of not harming a convert can be seen from the fact that Torah warns us about this in a number of places. From the negative we can learn the positive. The merit of acting with love and kindness toward a convert is great.”

Growth Through Torah”, page 312

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

I don’t think I really need to add anything to that, as these wise words encapsulates how this all pans out in my mind as well upon consideration. This lesson especially hangs heavy on my heart, with personal sting of not so infrequently seeing strangers and converts wronged.

And furthermore, I feel the rabbi is right. This text and understanding can be redeemed by helping us realize just how important and meritorious it is to show kindness a stranger – to a convert or an immigrant.

In closing I would like to also leave us with one more observation by another very wise scholar, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. He gives us another reason as to seeming juxtaposition of this section with other commandments on the page. He instead relates it back to the conversation we had last week, about the tribal flags. And how some struggle with that in light of nationalism and the hostility towards outsiders. (see “Parshat Bamidbar 5774: Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving?”) The rabbi writes:

“But why must the laws of gezel ha-ger [stealing from a convert/immigrant] appear in Parashat Naso? The underlying idea, the motto which appears again and again throughout the first two parashiot of the book of Bemidbar [Numbers] is “le-mishpechotam le- beit avotam” – “according to their families and by the house of their fathers.” The beginning of the book of Bemidbar is filled with the idea of family and tribal roots. However, there is a psychological danger stemming from feelings of tribal rootedness and connection; it can lead to disregard and even hostility towards all outsiders, towards all those not belonging to the clan.

“While Judaism sees the family and the nation as central to Jewish identity and consciousness, it is well aware of the danger to which these loyalties can lead when taken to an extreme. It is for this reason that we are commanded with regard to gezel ha-ger in the middle of Parashat Naso. It is precisely the ger, the foreigner, lacking the sense of familial, tribal and national roots, who is most vulnerable to the atmosphere pervading the beginning of Sefer Bemidbar. Therefore, the Torah commands us here to deal with the ger exactly as we would with our fellow Israelites.”

Sicha of HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, shlit”a

I hope we all take this to heart as we read this parsha, and make a commitment to do right by the strangers in our midst.

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Parshat Shoftim (2013)


Parshat Shoftim
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

How does the Torah define perversion? When the law becomes deviant.

_img-sefer-gavelHow often do you hear politicians and lobbyist groups talking about uprooting perversion in our country? It is a chorus that is ringing all over the world as people begin to feel social and economic turmoil. People are once again being singled out by the state, being blamed for destroying the moral and cultural fabric of a nation. For many of us Jews, to see state-sponsored persecution abound is something traumatic after the experiences of the Shoah – the holocaust of World War II. How can we respond to this?

It is true that the Torah does charge us with a call for holiness and purity, and also to do away with foreign ways and false religion. But it also charges us with justice and righteousness. So important is this charge that the discussion of holiness and Temple worship is temporarily suspended in this book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) to talk about setting up the courts of justice in a simple three verse clause (see Deut. 16:18-20).

At all the gates court is to be held by shoftim – judges, magistrates – who are to hand down mishpat tzedek – just rulings, or righteous judgment as some people poetically say.

As previously discussed (see Parshat Shoftim 2011), we are told to not twist (or bend) judgment (lo-tateh mishpat), nor show favoritism; nor are we to take a bribe, as that blinds the eyes of the wise. Then it continues with the words, “v’sulaf divrei tzedek / and you shall not pervert words of justice.” (see Deut. 16:19)

From this perspective we need to think differently about who we call perverts, and whom we call bent or twisted.

I call this to our attention because we all know the next words of the Torah, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof / Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (see Deut. 16:20) One might ask themselves why we are told to radaf – to pursue, to run after justice and righteousness. The reason is obviously because justice if often hard to grasp, and can often elude us. Yes, we are to chase down justice. However it means something more still. To radaf means to seek something with persistence; hauntingly, annoyingly, to trouble someone until justice is met. Most of us are annoying people already, if only we would use it for a righteous purpose!

How can we do that? By opposing policies and regimes which pervert words of justice (v’sulaf divrei tzedek). By actively opposing those who warp the legal system which meant to set policy for the betterment of all people, and instead turn the law into an element of oppression. Those which exchange words of righteousness for words of persecution.

Now I want to remind us that this is all talked about in the context of not showing favoritism nor taking bribes. We are instead instructed to continue to pursue justice in the face of this. Why must we pursue it? For what reason do we have to chase after it?

It’s because sometimes justice is not something easily attained. Sometimes there is all kinds of bribery, or as in our society this most often displayed as a flagrant use of corporate influence. We are not to give in to this ourselves, but keep bringing up “divrei” – not just mere words; this also quite literally means “cases” or “matters” or “legal opinions.” We continue to annoyingly raise these issues in the public square and in the courts until justice is met.

I want to point out that this text does not just speak to the judges, it speaks to us all by stating “you shall not bend judgment.” Or as most often stated, “you shall not pervert judgment.” It calls us all to look at ourselves and ask ourselves; have we become distorted, deviated and twisted in our own sense of justice? Are we negatively using our influence to harm others, or are we actively pursuing true justice?


Parshat Mishpatim (2013)


Exodus 21 – 24

Jewish Justice: Does the Torah forbid us from taking cases to civil courts?

Torah and LawIn this week’s parsha we come in to this discussion just one chapter after the giving of the Ten Commandments. After the giving of these first ten the people became overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, smoke, and trembling that came as G-d spoke on Har Sinai. They asked for Moses to speak with G-d for them, they will give heed but they prefer for him to address the voice of G-d, to which Moses agrees and he draws closer into the thickness of G-d’s presence. (see Exodus 20:14-17) Immediately we find that G-d continues to give commandments to Moses, that they are not to worship with idols made of precious metals but instead they are to make simple, burnt offerings upon altars of unhewn stones. Neither are they worship through naked ritual on that altar. These are the core commandments of Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Temple worship. (Exodus 20:18-22)

Then our parsha begins with the following words:

“And these are the ordinances

which you must set before them.”

| Ve’eleh hamishpatim

| asher tasim lifneihem.

Exodus 21:1

What we need to keep in mind is that the revelation of Sinai is still taking place, Moses has not yet descended from the mountain. Moses continues to hear the commandments of G-d spoken to him. The giving of commandments doesn’t just end at this point, no it continues.

Interestingly this section’s chumash commentary is going to begin by giving us the basis of the Lishkat haGazit – the House of Hewn Stones, the Supreme Court known as the Sanhedrin, the house of law that stood opposite and distinct from that of the ritual complex and it’s altar.

Rashi immediately begins to set up for this point in his commentary that their laws they administer are from Sinai, they are to adjudicated the commandments held herein. He makes this point while noting that even in the Torah we clearly see that G-d did not just give ten commandments alone, he gave additional ones as noted with the words “ve’eleh / and these are…” They were only spoken directly to Moses as an audience as we see here in this scene. We are taught that there is a reason for the juxtaposition of these laws relating ot the altar and the establishing of ordinances of Torah, it is not by accident. G-d is not merely giving ritual direction to this new society, He is also advises them how to administer civil law as well in this Torah. Hashem speaks all these things to Moses.

Rashi focuses heavily on the latter clause of the verse, upon the words “asher tasim lifneihem / that you shall set before them.” The sages tell us that G-d did not instruct Moses to just refer to the oral instructions two or three times, so that they familiarize themselves with it well enough. No, one in leadership is not free of the responsibility to enable people to understand it and to explain it to those who turn to them. The judges are to set the Torah before people, not just throw the book at them. It’s not to be tossed at someone quickly. The Torah is to be placed before someone like a place setting at a table, set before one like a set table (kshulchan aruch) placed before someone so that they can eat (and thus nourish themselves) from it. (see Talmud Bavli, Eruvin 54b)

Notice that we have only barely come out of Egypt and already we have touched on the topic of law and order. In Parshat Yitro we see that Moses is given advice on appointing judges because surely he will not be able to continue to hear all the Israelite’s cases, his father-in-law contends. (see Parshat Yitro 2012) They were a true society, with real people, problems, disputes and crimes. Moses up until then had heard all their disputes and grievances. Here we see the type of issues of law that came in to play in their society being summarized for us in these next few chapters. Thus this parsha is named Mishpatim – meaning ordinances, laws, or judgments.

If one examines the types of law that the Israelites are commanded by G-d, we see that the law spoken about here is more than just civil law, relating to contracts and damages. It extends all the way to criminal and capital cases as well. But what makes this system of Torah justice unique is that it does not just take into consideration civic responsibility, it also takes moral and religious concerns into consideration as well. Within the context of Israelite sovereignty and in the shadow of the altar this system was to administer all justice for the people.

The rabbis saw themselves as continuing on the role of the elders and judges, administering this law for the Jewish people. Even after the fall of the Sanheidrin during the Roman occupation the rabbis continued to administer law to the best of their ability in tribunals known as a beit din – literally a house of law, a law building; or simply, a court. Even if these courts were makeshift. Though they did not live in sovereignty and thus there were many elements of law that had to be set aside under foreign rule, nonetheless as members of a minority that was not considered a true citizenry they were left without a working judicial infrastructure and Jews often naturally continued to rely upon their local rabbis to summon a religious court for them.

As the Jewish people began to pioneer out across the world during the dark-ages to follow they often found themselves settling in areas where there was no system of law. It is for this reason that our sages stress among one of the Seven Commandments given to the sons of Noah, the seventh and very distinct one from the Ten Commandments of Moses; the command to establish courts of justice. (see Talmud Bavli, Sanheidrin 56a) In their distant enclaves they continued to engage themselves in Jewish law in ways not so distant from their autonomous past and encouraged law and order among their neighbors.

As the Christian and later the Muslim conquests followed and their rulers became more deep-seated they did establish their own courts of law, but much of the Jewish population was not integrated into that society. Jews still continued to live in enclaves, most notoriously in forced settlements and closed towns known as ghettos in Europe. In the absence of a judicial system that concerned itself with their needs Jews needed to rely heavily on the rabbinic courts to settle disputes.

Even though today we are greatly integrated into the larger society many religious Jews still depend on the rabbinic courts to settle issues for us. Though these days most of us live in countries with established civil courts, often times the issues that most concern the lives of religious Jews cannot be taken into consideration by the civil code of the land. People turn to a beit din to settled these issues. These concerns and disputes can extend beyond just religious issues, concerning themselves with more than just hearing case relating to ketubot and kashrut. In an old-world culture where people often make agreements on a handshake and a promise, or making unique business agreements for optimal religious benefit of the parties, people put a lot of faith into the ability of community rabbis to settle issue between them.

Everyone can bring their issues to a beit din, even a non-Jew in dispute with a Jew is able to bring a case before a rabbinic court of three rabbis. Historically this often made a lot of sense to pursue because non-Jews have traditionally wanted to avoid the complications arising from lack of integration (that a Jew doesn’t have standing to be heard in a gentile court) and also because of the reality that Jews would be more likely to give heed to the ruling of their own community. A ruling by the community rabbis would come with the weight of communal authority, compelling the community to have to respond, thus a person living in that community could not live comfortably until the issue was settled.

As the rabbis even hear the complicated moral issues at hand in a case, the use of this type of litigation is sometimes still favored by parties and utilized as a form of civil arbitration. The only thing that is required of each party is that they agree to the ruling of the tribunal of rabbis as binding for settlement. And I want to stress this aspect of this type of adjudication, this is the final closure of this dispute and therefore one is not able to go to another court later to settle the issue again. If you don’t like the ruling you are not able to dismiss it and shop around for another set of rabbis that will agree with your claim. Because this is the case, the raising of a legal dispute by another court after being heard by the rabbis was considered anathema.

Most often people who could not get a ruling that satisfied them would therefore lastly turn to the non-Jewish authorities, to courts headed by local nobles or bishops; something considered an avoidance of justice already rendered, and furthermore an act of informing against Jews for spectacle trials during an age of inquisition. For this reason our rabbinic law from this age and context states, as in the Shulchan Aruch, that one is forbidden from bringing cases before the non-Jewish courts (see Shulchan Aruch, Chosen Mishpat, Siman 26).

We must keep all of this in mind as we read the next section of Rashi, or we might be lead to the wrong conclusion. The commentary for the last word of Exodus 21:1 reads as follows:

Before them: But not before gentiles,

even if you know that they will judge

something the same as the laws of Israel,

you shall not bring it to their courts,

for one who brings Israelite lawsuits

before gentiles

profanes the [Divine] Name

and honors the names of idols

to ascribe importance to them.

As it is said:

‘For not like our Rock [G-d] is their rock,

but [yet] our enemies judge [us]’ (Deut. 32:31).

When [we let] our enemies judge [us]

this is testimony to [our] esteem of their deity.”

לפניהם: ולא לפני גוים, |

ואפילו ידעת בדין |

אחד שהם דנין אותו כדיני ישראל, |

אל תביאהו בערכאות שלהם, |

שהמביא דיני ישראל |

לפני גוים |

מחלל את השם |

ומיקר שם עבודה זרה |

להחשיבה, |

שנאמר: |

כי לא כצורנו צורם |

ואויבינו פלילים, |

כשאויבינו פלילים זהו |

עדות לעלוי יראתם: |

Rashi for Exodus 21:1 (from Tanchumah 3)

This section of the Torah is one that I didn’t necessarily think much upon in previous years. This whole section relating to lawsuits is something that we don’t often discuss, even though a great swath of the Torah and Talmud is about settling disputes. I have never been part of a legal proceeding myself, and I can honestly say I have never had an instance of conflict that I felt needed to be brought before a court aside from administrative issues, be it a civil court or a rabbinic court. Thus I have rarely had to consider the idea of whether or not I would ideally bring an issue before a rabbinic court or a civil court. But our halacha is clear, and for sensible reasons, we are to settle cases among ourselves to the best of our ability and to extent the law allows us.

We should not have to bring cases before non-Jewish courts, because when we do so it shames our faith and shows deference to heathen ethics. Simply put, to petition outside courts says we can’t follow our own laws and religion so we need foreigners (indeed, idolaters) to set us straight.

Now as we look at the above Rashi for this text, I want us to first concern ourselves with what it initially states. It’s reason for us not turning to gentile courts to settle our issues is not so much out of fear of making a chilul Hashem (a desecration of the Name of G-d), but namely because our primary concern is that the non-Jewish courts will not rule to the same height of moral standard as the Torah demands.

This week as I began to read the commentary for this I began to become troubled as I considered the English translations offered for the Rashi in most volumes. Because here was the first verse of this weeks parsha commentary seemingly offering fuel for a serious moral debate in the Jewish community. In the past few years several sexual abuse cases have rocked the Jewish community worldwide. In recent weeks the internet has been buzzing with articles revealing previously unknown sexual abuse and rape cases. The disturbing nature of it has intensified after the release of several statements by prominent rabbis suggesting that sexual abuse cases not be taken to the authorities first, but instead reported to the rabbis.

There does not appear to be a mass cover-up anything close to the crisis rocking the Catholic church this week, where Cardinals were known to have intentionally buried sexual abuse claim. (see The Los Angeles Times) However, our reaction to our crisis is just as anguishing. As we see that the Jewish community is experiencing exponential growth its institutions seem to lack a sophisticated understanding of sexual abuse and mechanism for dealing with abuse cases. In a lot of ways what seems to make the atmosphere similar in both cases is that it appears to victims that the religious institutions are showing more regard for their embarrassment, instead of first concerning themselves with championing their superior ethics. The finger-pointing by lot of Jews had towards Catholics amidst their fall from grace is being turned inward now.

The truth is that we should be harshly denouncing and uprooting sexual abusers from within our communities. We should be using the religious courts and bodies to punish abusers, not just looking at cold statutes like the secular legal system but instead hold each abuser accountable to a higher authority found in Torah. People should be called to account for their injustices by our Batei Din (rabbinic courts).

However, this does not mean that we are not to report these cases to the police and cooperate with civil prosecution. Our rabbis are limited in authority, only really being able to hand out moral censure and award settlements for damages that only personal honor would compel one to comply with. Just as a beit din does not have autonomous rule to administer capital or corporal punishment, it does not have the ability to administer criminal law either. Neither is it legal for us to imprison someone, that is only allowed by civil authorities. Those who insist that we are not allowed by our sages to bring cases to the civil authorities based on this text ignore the obvious meaning of the words “dinei Yisrael / Israelite (Jewish) lawsuits” of our commentary; our rabbis can hear lawsuits but cannot enforce punishment for crimes. Their legal authority is incomplete, it is inappropriate that it end there.

The fact is that living in a secular, civil society we are required to live according to the law of the land. Our tradition clearly states to us Dina deMalchutah Dina – that the law of the land is the law, even for the Jews. (see Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 54b, Nedarim 28a, Gittin 10b, Bava Kama 113a, and Bava Batra 55a)

We cannot break the law, wherever we live we are required to respect their laws. Sexual abuse is a crime that is punishable by the criminal courts, it is not merely a civil case which is settled by a lawsuit and monetary judgment. When a crime is committed a person is accountable for their crimes against the people of that land according to their laws. Furthermore, in most states and countries one is required by law to report suspicion of physical or sexual abuse to the authorities. When the seriousness of ones crimes goes beyond the scope of “din Yisael / the law of Israel” then it must be rightfully settled in the courts of the land, who are authorized to hear such cases.

In a society where there is a degradation of moral and civil responsibility we need to use all the appropriate levels of justice to adjudicated law and order. By assisting justice on both religious and civil grounds can we live up to our motto, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof / Justice, justice shall you persue.” (Deut. 16:20)


Parshat Shoftim (2011)


Parshat Shoftim
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

How the Torah calls us to an extreme pursuit of justice, and towards an abhorrence of corruption

_img-sefer-gavelMany of you know that when I get into a parsha, sometimes I get stuck for weeks even. I feel like I can’t move on until I really grasp the lesson, and take it to heart. Every year this parsha stops me, and always about these very points. Even though it is last weeks parsha, I want to share this you. I would love to do a more complete study at some point, but a new Shabbat is coming upon us so I gotta get on with this weeks parsha now!

Last week, in Parshat Re’eh we began to see some interesting language being laid out for us. Several times we read in the text that the children of Israel are to do what is right in the eyes of G-d, by following after all of these mitzvot that He has commanded us. The first thing we learned was that when the people entered into the land there would be a chosen spot appointed, and worship would be centralized there. We later read of the mitzvot against idolatry and the command to destroying all traces of the false deities of the inhabitants. These many local place of worship and home altars were to be destroyed; as the children of Israel too would be forbidden to participate in private worship,thus offerings were to only be offered at the Temple once it was established. Then the parsha also goes into the details of the shelosh regalim – the three pilgrimage festivals. Of course lumped up in between there we were also presented with the mitzvot relating to kashrut, tithes, etc.

But early on we were given with blunt words from Mosheh (Moses) regarding how things were going to change once they went into the land:

“You shall not do all that we do

here this day,

everyman what is right in his own eyes.

For you have net yet come to the rest

and the inheritance that Hashem your G-d

gives you.”

| Lo ta’asun k’chol asher anachnu osim

| poh yayom.

| ish kol hayashar b’einav.

| Ki lo batem od atah el-hamenuchah

| v’el ha-nach’alah asher Hashem Elohecha

| noten lach.

Deuteronomy 12:9

Though in the preceding verses up to this Mosheh tries to soften up the message, saying that they are being commanded to do this so that they will be able to rejoice and celebrate together that G-d blesses them at whatever they set their hand to. It was to unify the people, and provide a space for everyone to celebrate before G-d. Though you must understand that this most certainly would have been a contentious issue to people, maybe even considered as religious intolerance. But notice that when public worship was possible, private worship was not to be allowed. It was so necessary that people be in relationship with one another and responsible to each other that we were given commandments and seasons were it was compulsory for people to go up to the House of G-d. Both as individuals with life cycle events and corporately as a nation during holidays, they were mandated to ascend to the congregation of the people.

It was not just religious observance was going to centralized, so too the judicial system would also come to rest in Jerusalem. This would serve as a capital in all respects. We begin to read of that in this weeks portion, Parshat Shoftim.

This parsha is going to go into great detail about justice, and the rules for establishing justice. But it doesn’t just deal with the concept of justice in general and on the national stage, it’s also going to establish a system for adjudicating justice locally. Thus we read in the opening words of our parsha:

“Judges and officers

shall you provide at all the gates [of the cities]

which Hashem your G-d shall give you,

so each tribe shall be judged with

righteous judgment.”

| Shoftim veshotrim

| titen-lecha bechol-she’areicha

| asher Hashem Eloheicha noten lecha

| lishvateicha veshafetu et-ha’am

| mishpat tzedek.

Deuteronomy 16:18

So our parsha opens with the word shoftim – which means judges, which is very appropriate because the bulk of this parsha is going to be about the rules that relate to the judges and officers; including priests, kings, and local magistrates. This Torah is very demanding of those in authority. This is what is expected of the leaders:

“You shall not twist judgment,

you shall not respect persons,

and you shall not take a bribe

for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise

and perverts the words of the righteous.”

| “Lo-tateh mishpat

| lo takir panim

| velo-tikach shochad

| ki hashochad ye’aver einei chachamim

| visalef divrei tzadikim.”

Deuteronomy 16:19

Now this is very clear, this cuts right at the heart of old-world and small-minded thinking that is left in the children of Israel. Like all people who come from the old way of doing things, favoritism and bribes is the societal norm. But here they are being told this is forbidden, because even the wise and righteous will find their judgment perverted by such things. But it doesn’t just outlaw bribes, it uniquely outlaws showing favoritism. It actually informs one that “lo takir panim / you shall not recognize a face;” that you should deal with the issue at hand and not even give consideration to the person for whom the case is heard. But takir also means to become acquainted, to know, to become familiar with, or to be introduced to. One also must not be chummy with the people related to the case or they cannot rule appropriately.

Then our parsha gives us some of the most famous and lovely words in all of the Torah:

“Justice, justice shall you pursue

that you may live

and occupy the land

that Hashem your G-d gives you.”

| Tzedek tzedek tirdof

| lema’an tichieh

| veyarashta et-ha’aretz

| asher Hashem Eloheicha noten lach.”

Deuteronomy 16:20

These three words “tzedek tzedek tirdof / justice justice shall our seek” are such a central concept to the Jewish people that these words are known the world over as a battle cry of Jewish progressives. Though one may not know any other Hebrew words, these words have been made infamous even in the United State where they were proclaimed by Jewish people who fought for abolition of slavery, woman’s suffrage, child labor laws and civil rights.

Interesting statement, to tirdof tzedek to pursue justice. This word tirdof means to seek and pursue, yes. It literally means to chase after. But normally this word is used very differently in spoken Hebrew, more often it means to haunt or trouble a person, to chase them down. Why chase them? Normally one does this to oppress or persecute a person, so they are on the run! For this reason to be nirdaf in Hebrew means to be persecuted or to be oppressed. Instead our Torah tells us to do the exact opposite, it tells us to go running and chasing after people in order to do righteousness and provide them justice; so that they may live, and so we can all live more securely. It’s not good enough that we don’t go after people to persecute them like it’s an inquisition, instead we are commanded to go out and seek people out in order to show extreme justice and compassion to those who are deprived of it!

Justice. Not just any sort of justice, but tzedek tzedek; said twice, which is the classical way of emphasizing something important that should not be missed. We are to seek to fill this world with perfect justice; tzedek, which simply means what is right and correct. Again we are reminded that we are to show correct judgment to all people, indiscriminately. We are not be crooked or biased people.

Here in this parsha there is established a system of judgment were appointed magistrates and elders are assigned through out the local towns, cities, and tribal regions that operated as almost like individual states. They are to meet at the local gates, which in this society is the primary marketplace for all forms of business and social interaction. The bigger the city is the more gates they have to accommodate the traffic, thus the more judges and officers they city also had as they were placed at all the gates. One should not have to go far to find justice, it should be as accessible as going to buy groceries! And it should be proclaimed in the open, for all the people to witness and not in private back-room dealings.

The House of Hewn Stone: The Roots of the Sanhedrin

In this parsha we begin by discussing the local judicial system. But this was not the only branch of government that was established to oversee the law. Earlier in the Torah, in Parshat Yitro we learned that Mosheh was challenged by his father-in-law Yitro to appoint judges because the task was too big to for him to hear all the issues of the people himself. He presented him with a system of selecting elders and judges that were given a certain jurisdiction, and then judges set over larger regions still; like courts of appeal, increasing in jurisdiction as one progresses up the legal system. The lower courts should hear the minor cases, and the major ones that were too hard to deal with would be brought to him. This made good sense to Mosheh, who we read listened and did just as Yitro said (see Exodus 18). Actually, Mosheh at one point totally broke down. And after much complaining from the people he admits that being responsible for everything and all of them is too much, and he even asks G-d to do him a favor and kill him because he’s even disgusted with himself. We read that Hashem approved the idea of appointing judges in his place, and commanded him to implement it accordingly:

“And Hashem said to Mosheh:

Gather for Me seventy men

of the elders of Israel

that you know to be

the wise men of the people

and their officials

and bring them to the Tent of Meeting

that they may stand there with you.”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe

| esfah-li shiv’im ish

| miziknei Yisra’el

| asher yadata ki-hem

| ziknei ha’am

| veshotrav

| velakachta otam el-Ohel Mo’ed

| vehityatzvu sham imach

Numbers 11:16

So here, at the Ohel Moed – the place where Mosheh normally heard all the issues and concerns of the people, as well as made all his judgments from – he was no longer to stand alone, but with seventy men standing with him in an official capacity. These were not priests or sacred people such as a Levite, they were people of all the tribes of Israel. Mosheh was to choose these leaders, thus it was required that he know them and their reputation personally.

To be an elder – a zakein – in this sense does not necessarily mean that one is old man with a zakana beard. But this is the image one normally gets, even in the Talmud where the term usually means ones grandfather. But in actuality this term means something more than one who has aged; it can often means one who is aged, thus in everyday speech this often can mean a person who is old-fashioned, or as we say old-schooled. They are a wise person from having some life experience under their belt. Thus to be a zakein also means one that is a wise man and or a sage.

Thus we read of the setting up of the assembly of the elders at the Ohel Moed – which would later be incorporated into the Beit HaMikdash – The Temple, as the Lishkat haGazitThe Chamber of Hewn Stone. This body which was established by Mosheh at the command of G-d would later become known as the Sanhedrin, who functioned in the capacity of hearing the most complex and high-profile cases. Most often the difficulty in trying these cases was because they dealt with the most extreme cases and people. As we will see the situations presented to us in this parsha concern false prophets, rebellious leaders, and cities of idolatry. Mosheh was not alone in dealing with these issues any more. G-d promised to speak to him from there, and the people would also be given some of the spiritual mantel that only Mosheh wore up until now so that they help share the responsibility and he not go at it alone. G-d and his fellow man would advise him.

But there is one point that is often missed by people when we read this. It does not say that they will be given a spirit like Mosheh, that would suggest that they would be like minded to Mosheh. No, instead we read that G-d would atzaldelegate spiritual responsibility to the elders. Nor does it say that they will just stand there merely supporting him, it says that they will “vehityatsvu sham imach / and they will present themselves there with you.” To hityatzeiv not only means to present oneself, but it also means to face, or to stand before one. Mosheh as he heard these cases would be advised by these elders who also would present Mosheh with issues and advice, each being wise in many matters and able to contribute. Mosheh and any successive leader that headed this body would would listen to these 70 sages, and they in tern would oversee the legislative process of enacting the Torah law. Not even Mosheh was above the law, nor able to act willfully he was kept in check by the elders and G-d. In this sense we can understand why the word hityatzeiv can also mean to stabilize. They didn’t just support him to help from falling over, their functions was one of bringing moderation and balance to the legal system.

In this parsha Mosheh now lays out how this is going to effect the body of elders and the people’s relationship to them once they are established within the Promised Land. It also gives us some pretty good insight into how things worked during those days as very little changed, the system was just incomplete before the nation was established.

Now for the sake of time I will paraphrase some of the text to bring us up to speed on how this system functioned. When there was a cases that arose that were too difficult such as judgment “between blood and blood” (presumably capital cases), between conflicting laws and please, causes of assault, plague like epidemics arise, or when there is controversy boiling over in that place, they are to get up and go the place G-d will choose (it’s contentiously refereed to this way because Jerusalem is not yet the capital, as they have not even entered into the actual country yet). They are to approach the Levite priests and unto the judges that are there in those days to ask questions, and the judges will declare the sentence to the people. The case may already be tried, but this is in place for cases in which there is dispute or a ruling of capital punishment. To show impartiality and settle the issue once and for all, the approval of a supreme court was prescribed for judgment to be sentenced and then carried out.

Like I said, it doesn’t sound a whole lot different from Mosheh’s style of governing, but it does assure the people that they will still have continuity of government that they have depended on. Even though it will change, it will still be able to serve their needs in the same way. In fact just in case anyone questions if they have to listen to these leaders since they aren’t like Mosheh who spoke with and for G-d we read the following words:

“And you shall do according to the sentence

which they shall inform you

from the place which Hashem shall choose

and you shall observe to do

all that they shall instruct you.”

| Ve’asita al-pi hadavar

| asher yagidu lecha

| min-hamakom hahu asher yivchar Hashem

| veshamarta la’asot

| kechol asher yorucha.

Deuteronomy 17:10

The people are going to be able to approach the judges and know that they represent G-d just as much as Mosheh who stood and spoke with G-d’s Presence in a mere tent, as their leaders would be instructing them from the House of G-d where His Presence dwells. They were not inventing the law, their function was to yigidu, to inform people of the law in laying down the sentence. So this system would continue until in function until the 3rd century CE; seventy plus one judges just as in the days of Mosheh Rabbeinu – Moses our teacher

But their job went much further than just being judges. And this is where the role of the Sanhedrin goes far beyond being just a senate or an over sized supreme court. As wise men, as sages and as men of great experience, their brilliance was to find its use for more than just laying down the law. Yes it was in their capacity as judges, but here as a mature institution we see that a Sanhedrin goes one step further and is to instruct the people. The job of the sages should also be to teach you (yorucha).

“According to the Torah

which they shall interpret

and according to the law

they shall tell you,

you shall do.

Do not deviate from the sentence

which they shall declare to you

to the right hand, or to the left.”

| Al-pi haTorah

| asher yorucha

| ve’al-hamishpat

| asher-yomru lecha

| ta’aseh

| lo tasur min-hadavar

| asher yagidu lecha

| yamin usmol.

Deuteronomy 17:11

We are to follow through with the commands given to us by the leaders of the Sanhedrin because they are hereby being charged to interpret and legislate law. They are to determine the law according to the Torah, not that of their own will. Because they are commanding people to be in obedience of the Torah, and also because the consequences of failing to follow through results in judgment, the people must be properly instructed so that it is clear and there is no misunderstanding. As person is often ignorant of what is correct it is commanded that for all capital cases there must be warning first be given before being sentenced to judgment. As we see here this warning also comes with instruction in how they are to practice the Torah correctly. Thus if a person breaks the law from here on out it is out of willfulness and not merely a case of ignorance.

The Presumptious Man: The Willful Sinner

This point of willful sinning, in rebellion to the Torah and the sages must be understood in order for us to make sense of the next few verses. It is also essential in understanding the Talmudic interpretation of these verses.

“And the man who does presumptuously

and does not listen to the priest

who ministers there before

Hashem your G-d,

even to a judge, that man shall die

and thereby exterminating evil in Israel.”

| Veha’ish asher-ya’aseh vezadon

| levilti shmoa el-hakohen

| ha’omed lesharet sham

| et-Hashem Eloheicha

| o el-hashofet umet ha’ish hahu

| uvi’arta hara miYisra’el.

Deuteronomy 17:12

The key word here that is difficult for many to understand is the word vezadon – to be presumptuous, as it says in most of the classic English Bible translations. The word itself is quite rare, used only a handful of times in the scriptures. We can only come to this understanding of the word by interpreting in accordance with tradition, as in the Talmud where we find that this means a man who is actually a judge or elder who acts in rebellion to the sentence of the Sanhedrin. This makes sense because the Sanhedrin was not a court to try cases but to interpret if the law was prescribed correctly and appropriately, therefore only other judges and officials would be heard by the Sanhedrin. Therefore it is interpreted by the great rabbis that as insinuated by the text, even a man who is a judge shall be executed if he goes against the law. No one is above the law, or too good for capital punishment.

But the crime that he is understood to be guilty of in this case is not enacting the sentence of the elders. Thus the archaic 14th century word presumptuously does have a purpose, one that is missed today; it means to overstep the one’s bounds, to take liberties regarding something. In this case it is someone overstepping their authority and/or taking liberties regarding their application of law that goes against what was commanded them by the sentencing court. Instead of laying down Torah law they insist on their own will and thus distort the commands of G-d. We will see this same term used in Deut. 18:20 regarding the prophet who speaks presumptuously in G-d’s Name, though he was not commanded to say anything. So too is the judge that twists the law, they speak what they want instead of what is right. They both are to be executed

Now one might wonder how it could be so, that leaders and officers of the people could be guilty of such things. The Talmud contends this only applies to members of the Sanhedrin who were able to bring issues before them to be heard and thus reject; whereas I could suggest that this means any man at all by a plain reading of the text. None the less the position of the Talmud is true for their usage, as the Sanhedrin did not make habit of trying individuals but only other leaders that did not act in accordance with the ethics of their profession. They were not to be lenient towards them, but punish according to the full extent of the law even if it meant death. We are told doing this would exterminate evil in Israel, in all levels of society. So the next verse reads in summary:

“And when the entire people hear of this

they will fear

and do not more presumptuously.”

| Vechol-ha’am yishme’u

| veyira’u

| velo yezidun od.

Deuteronomy 17:13

Or as we can understand this word now, they shall not act rebelliously anymore. By enacting judgment against those in authority the people were also taught to not act willfully and out of rebellion. This type of attitude is something that is not just found in the common man, it is even found in the most learned and men of status; maybe even more so, some might suggest. The term zid in the purest sense of the word means to boil over, to seethe; we see this used of when describing the lentil soup made by Yaakov and given to Eisav. (Gen. 25:29) But figuratively when used to describe people it means to be proud, and thus unbending (see Neh. 9:16,29; Jer 50:29). It can also be used to describe how a person acts towards someone else, as in Nehemiah 9:10 we see that G-d enacted judgment against Egypt because they “ki hatzidu alechem,” meaning they acted arrogantly towards the children of Israel. The teachers and sages of the Sanhedrin understood that such attitudes were surely more prevalent in the ruling class, and not nearly as much among the humble average citizen. And their actions had greater consequence and must be treated according.

However, I should point out that the Torah itself does say that all people, even the common man, was able to be proud and arrogant. But why do do rabbis focus its application to leadership instead of all people? It is because they understood their place. Their decisions as leaders had greater consequence, effecting many lives not just their own. And when the laws was applied to the great then even the modest man clearly understand there was no way he is above the law himself and thus will become too afraid to willfully do evil anymore.

Again, I stress. This negative attitude could be found in any class person. Anyone could seethe in their own pride and become arrogant and haughty in the themselves as to rebel against the authority of the law. We should all be careful to not let our pride and arrogance arise, letting it bubble over to the point that we show contempt for the law.

To have a healthy society it is essential that the people respect the law, and this could only be if it applied to everyone. Whereas the law does not play favorites, it does however take into account the status of the individual in order to hold them to a higher level of accountability. This is contrary to the norm among the nations to instead provide immunity for officials. In this sense the Torah is very unique.

In having a system of accountability to others and not just doing what is right in one’s eyes, there was a mechanism for checking to make sure that a verdict was correct. But even more so it demanded one of the virtues of true justice, that at some final point people must accept the sentence of the law and end their claim once and for all; not to assume they are the only one that is right. I believe this is the wrong of being presumptuous; being sure in your mind you’re the only one that is right.

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