September 9-10, 2016 – 7 Elul 5776
Annual (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9): Etz Hayim p. 1088; Hertz p. 820
Triennial (Deuteronomy 19:14-21:9): Etz Hayim p. 1099; Hertz p. 829
Haftarah (Isaiah 51:12-52:12): Etz Hayim p. 1108; Hertz p. 835
Human Rights and the Mission of Judaism
Dr. Shaiya Rothberg, CY Faculty (Bible, Jewish Thought and Human Rights, and Kabbalah)
In this week’s Torah portion, God commands Israel, “Judges and officers shall you make you in all your gates…throughout your tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment.” (Devarim 16:18). We might think that this commandment (called “Mitsvat Shoftim“) is irrelevant to the modern world. However, I believe that even today it touches on the heart of Judaism’s mission for Israel and humanity.
First, we must locate Mitsvat Shoftim in the larger context of God’s commandment to protect all people through just law or “Mitsvat Dinim” (the “Commandment of Laws”), which is the first of the seven Noachide commandments. Through the art of midrash, the Rabbis learn Mitsvat Dinim from God’s command to Adam that he may eat from all the trees of the Garden but not from the tree of knowledge (Breshit 2:16, Sanhedrin 56b). They explain that the word “commanded” in Breshit 2:16 (“And the LORD God commanded Adam…”) also appears in Breshit 18:19, where it is says that Abraham will command future generations to do “justice and righteousness”. They thus read “justice and righteousness” into Breshit 2:16, also, and conclude that when God commands Adam (perhaps best translated here as “humanity”) regarding the tree, this includes the global rule of justice and righteousness.
This is clearly not the simply meaning. Why read it this way? I think the midrash should be understood in light of the stream of interpretation that finds in the first chapters of Breshit not just the beginning of the story, but also the place where God reveals the purpose of human existence. Maimonides, for example, understands the idea that humanity is created “in the image of God” (Breshit 1:26) not as a description but as a statement of purpose: The image of God is a potential that we can develop. For Maimonides, the wiser, more loving and more just we become, the more we are in God’s image (see the Mishneh Torah, Foundational Laws 4:8, and The Guide to the Perplexed 3:54). God’s purpose in creating the human race was that we should realize our potential to be in God’s image through cultivating wisdom, love and justice.
And so we find that in chapter one, God reveals the purpose of humanity, and in chapter two, God reveals that accomplishing that purpose requires protecting all people through just law. Mitsvat Shoftim, the establishment of justice in Israel, and Mitsvat Dinim, the establishment of justice globally, are two points along the same axis. Together they are the necessary condition for achieving God’s purpose in creation.
Two dramatic events, both occurring in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust, represent historic developments in the effort to fulfil these commandments. The first is the establishment of Israel which has enabled us to begin the task of realizing Mitsvat Shoftim. The second is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. International human rights law is the first attempt of the human species to protect all people everywhere through legal norms established not by conquest but by covenant. While flawed like all institutions, human rights law is the most successful, and the most promising, attempt to fulfil Mitsvat Dinim in the history of our species. I believe that our efforts to achieve success in these two historic projects, self-determination in Israel and global human rights, are at the very core of Judaism’s mission in our era.
A Vort for Parashat Shofetim
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty
Rashi explains the command that a newly installed king “write a copy of this law” – וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת (Deut 17:18): that he have two copies – one that stays in the office and one he takes wherever he goes. R’ Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Schreiber, the Ketav Sofer (1815–1871, Hungary), says every king, leader or rabbi should have two Sefer Torahs – one for “home,” for himself, with which he should observe every mitsva with strict precision (בזהירות ובדקדקנות); and the other to take with him to the people, with which he shows more latitude, teaching them more according to the “spirit of the law” (לפנים משורת הדין).
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty
This week we will meet some of the institutions of the society: courts, king, prophets, and some of the law that falls under their jurisdiction, such as homicide and going out to battle.
1) We open with a commandment to appoint judges ‘in all of your gates.’ (16:18). Why do you think that the gate of the town was the location of the court? Why do you think that the Torah requires every town to have a court? (If you are curious about the gate and its chambers, look at the pictures of the archeological dig in Tel Beer Sheva that dates to the biblical period.
2) Sometimes a case may be very complicated and the local judges are unable to resolve it (17:8-13). What can be done in such a case? Where is the higher judicial authority located? What do you think is the message by placing the high court in that location?
3) 17:14-20 concerns a king. Are we commanded to have a king? What is the king forbidden from doing? For 2 of the prohibitions there are reasons, what do you think is the reason for forbidding him to have a lot of gold and silver?
4) When a case is brought before a court, witnesses have to testify against the person (19:15). How many witnesses is the minimal number to testify against a person? Why do you think that the Torah does not accept a sole witness as sufficient?
5) As part of the preparations for going to battle, an announcement is made regarding 4 types of people who do not need to/should not go out to battle (20:1-9). What are the 4 cases? Which is the case that is different than the rest? What do the other 3 have in common? Read the text carefully: How can you see that the Torah divides them into a group of 3 and a group of 1?