Weekly Reading Insights

Shoftim 5763

Overview of the Weekly Reading: Shoftim

To be read on 4 Elul 5763 (Aug.30)

Torah: Deut. 16:18-21:9; Haftorah: Isaiah 51:12-52:12 (fourth of the seven "Haftorahs of Consolation")

Pirkei Avot - Chapter One

Stats: Shoftim , 5th Reading out of 11 in Deuteronomy and 48th overall, contains 14 positive mitzvot and 27 prohibitive mitzvot. It is written on 191.6 lines in a Torah parchment scroll, 27 in overall length.

Shoftim opens with the command to appoint judges and officers to uphold justice. The Jews are warned not to make idolatrous trees, pillars, or offer blemished animals, and are told the penalties of idolatry. The Jews are commanded to set up a Supreme Court and a monarch. The Levites are not to have territorial shares of the Land, but they receive portions of the Jews' sacrifices, meat, produce, and shearings. Laws regarding prophets, both false and true, are given. Also relayed are rules of cities of refuge, havens for the escaped unintentional murderer. An intentional murderer, however, receives the death penalty. Additional laws discussed are the prohibition against moving boundaries to steal land, or to testify falsely, who is not drafted to the army, who may or may not be taken captive, and a warning not to cut down fruit trees when waging siege on a city. Shoftim concludes with laws concerning a corpse of an unknown murdered individual found in the field: The elders of the closest city must decapitate a female calf over running water to atone for innocent blood shed in their midst.


"You shall appoint a king over yourself."

The inner intent of this commandment is to instill in the Jewish people a sense of nullification before G-d and acceptance of the yoke of heaven. For a Jewish king is completely nullified before G-d; submitting to his sovereignty contains an element of nullification before G-d as well.

(Derech Mitzvotecha)

M: 48-63Shoftim)


Selected with permission and adapted from the three-volume English edition of Shney Luchot HaBrit -- the Sh'lah, as translated, condensed, and annotated by Eliyahu Munk.
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630), known as the 'Sh'lah' - an acronym of the title, was born in Prague. A scholar of outstanding reputation, he served as chief Rabbi of Cracow, and more famously, of Frankfort (1610-1620). After his first wife passed away, he remarried and moved to Israel in 1621, where he became the first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Jerusalem. He later moved to Tiberias, where he is buried, near the tomb of the Rambam.

The commandments mentioned in this parasha are based on the "six pillars of silver," i.e. the six pillars upon which the universe is built. These six pillars are: Torah, Avoda (service), Gemilut Chasadim (acts of kindness), Din (judgment), Emet (truth), and Shalom (peace).

The pillar of Din (judgment) is mentioned in the opening verses, where the appointment of judges and a Supreme Court is legislated. The rules about an individual Torah scholar who refuses to submit to the majority decision of his colleagues, the law to appoint a king whose function it is to lead the people in the path of Torah, and the various instructions about witnesses all belong to the pillar of Din (judgment).

The pillar of Emet (truth) is represented by legislation dealing with sorcerers, a false prophet, etc., all of whom originate in the left side of the emanations, the domain from where sheker, "lies," emanate. The legislation not to pay heed to a false prophet, not to be afraid of violating the demands he makes upon you, as well as the promise that G-d will provide true prophets, all are part of the pillar of Emet.

The pillar of Shalom, peace, is presented as part of the legislation dealing with warfare -- provided the war is not against the seven nations who occupied Canaan at the time the Jewish people entered it -- in order to show how the Torah stresses peace. The Torah nonetheless decrees the utter annihilation of all the inhabitants of the land of Canaan because true peace can only come about when the wicked have been removed or have become penitents. We are even commanded to preserve ecological "peace" when the plants in question are of immediate and universal use to man, i.e. fruit-bearing. Such plants must not be destroyed even if by doing so the war would be shortened. The anointing of the priest who addresses the soldiers on their way to battle is designed to assure the soldiers that G-d loves them and has their welfare in mind. When we love G-d, there will be peace between G-d and us, and war among our (His) enemies. This is why the Torah orders us not to fear our enemies.

The pillar of Torah is dealt with in the legislation denying the tribe of Levi a share in the land to be distributed amongst the other tribes. It is their task to study Torah and to teach it, as we know from Deut. 33:10: "They shall teach Your laws to Jacob and Your instructions to Israel." If the Torah had allocated them farmland and orchards, they would be busy tending their land that they would not be able to fulfill their spiritual tasks. This is why the Torah instructs the Israelites to give certain gifts to the Levites, so that they should be free of the burden of earning a livelihood and thus be able to shoulder the burden of Torah study, etc., instead.

The pillar called Avoda (service) is represented in our parasha by the prohibition to plant a tree in the Temple precincts and the prohibition to erect stone-monuments. The law forbidding the sacrifice of a blemished animal also falls under that heading.
The pillar of Gemilut Chasadim concerns the true kindness shown to people after their death. In our parasha, this pillar is represented by the law concerning the cities of refuge, which provide partial restitution for unintentional murderers. So, too, the requirement to kill the "egla arufa" calf (if an unidentified body was found, the nearest city takes responsibility, for they may have been negligent in the mitzvah of hospitality and an indirect cause for the death) as a declaration that one has not been remiss in fulfilling this commandment also comes under this heading.

(adapted from Torat Moshe - the 16th commentary of Rabbi Moshe Alshech of Zefat on the Torah, as translated and condensed in the English version of Eliyahu Munk)

An essay from Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter, director of Ascent

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This coming Thursday and Friday is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first days of our annual month of preparation before the High Holy days, when the Jewish people are judged on their behavior of the past year. The Shlah explains the verse, "When the lion roars who is not afraid" (amos 3:8) The word lion, in Hebrew, aryeh, (spelled alef, raish, yud, hai), is an acronym for the 4 words, Elul, Rosh Hashanna, Yom Kippur and Hoshanna Rabbah (the last day of Sukkot). When the 'lion' of the High Holy Days arrives, people feel the urge to change their behavior for the better, in preparation of the Day of Judgment.
Because of the spiritual potency of the month of Elul, there are ancient traditions associating the name of the month with different Torah verses where the first letters of the words spell out Elul, showing us the different aspects of its character and how we can utilize them to connect with G-d. The most well known include, (Shir Hashirim 6:3) "I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me" which refers to the power of prayer. "Each man to his friend and gifts for the poor"( Ester 9:22) about tzedakah, and in general, kindness to others. "Your heart and the heart of your children" (Devarim 30:6 ) referring to Teshuvah [repentance] and "It came to his hand and we placed for him" (Shmos 21:13) which alludes to the cities of refuge, built for one who murdered accidentally. This refers to the Torah, our refuge.

In this week's Torah portion, Shoftim, there is an interesting verse about the power of Torah. Why do we study Torah? Certainly because it is one of the 613 commandments, but even more so, because it is G-d's will and wisdom. By immersing ourselves in the study of Torah, we are able to connect with G-d. This is a powerful concept, yet, there is an even greater dimension. In connection with describing how a true king of the Jewish people should behave, the Torah requires him to write his own Torah scroll. The verse continues, (17/19) "It should be with him and he should read from it all the days of his life in order that he should learn to fear G-d." The Zlotchover Rebbe expands on this. Not only does the Torah come to a person's aid when that person makes an effort to cleanse themselves, but even more so, when a person studies Torah, he is literally transformed. More than fasting, meditation, therapy or any other physical or intellectual occupation, the light within the Torah gives a person proper focus.
In fact, if a person applies himself to his optimum potential, he actually becomes a 'walking Torah scroll', able to draw on divine consciousness to guide him. Interestingly, the two kidneys, referred to in the Talmud as the base for the different 'humors' of a person, actually become like two wellsprings of Torah wisdom to teach and direct him! This is the meaning of the verse (cited by the Ramban), "It should be with (in) him", literally. He becomes like a written Torah scroll, "and read it", and he can know Torah just by reading himself. Reb Michal said it in a different way. The Torah was given to the Jewish people because they are aggressive (azim), (Talmud Beza, 25/b), meaning just like it is the nature of the body to desire physical pleasure, so it is the nature of the soul to desire to fulfill the commandments and will do all in its power to accomplish this. This is why G-d willed it that the Jewish People receive His Torah.

And when we will truly use all of our efforts during the month of Elul, to learn Torah and do all of the commandments, then the final verse hinted in the name 'Elul' will become fully revealed. "and they said, we will sing to G-d." This was the prophesy of the Jewish people at the splitting of the red sea, that everyone will sing together at the time of Mashiach celebrating the arrival of the final redemption!

Shabbat Shalom, Shaul Leiter

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