D’var Shoftim by Rabbi Mitch Cohen

This week’s parshah is Shoftim and it is the third conversation between Moses and Israel, just before they enter the Promised Land. Here they were, camped on the east side of the Jordan River, just across from Jericho, poised to enter the Promised Land. Moses knows that these are his last glimpse across the valley to Jericho. Like a parent making sure their college-aged child has everything in order before heading off to school, the main theme of this speech by Moses is setting up ethical and administrative norms for providing the community with structure once they settle in the Land.

The very first paragraph contains the famous declaration:

“Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal, your G-d is giving you”. Why is justice mentioned twice? Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Prsysucha wrote of this text, “one must pursue justice with justice – do not allow yourself to be guided by the godless principle of the “end justifies the means”. How you do what you do matters and how it impacts others really matters. However, who defines justice? To one small group, and as abhorrent as it is to the rest of us justice is protesting against homosexuality at the funeral of dead American soldier. To others it is justice to kill a person who does things they oppose. Rabbi Gunther Plaut in his Torah commentary wrote that “human justice has as its goal the establishment of Divine equity – tikkun olam, or a contribution to the repair of a broken world. Plaut added that pursuing justice was showing love for G-d, which is also compassion toward others. The Kabbalists taught that compassion was the balance between acts of lovingkindness and the natural consequences of one’s actions – a form of tough love. Tzedakah as charity is a form of justice; however, Maimonides stated that the highest form of tzedakah as charity was teaching a poor person a skill, giving him a loan or setting him up with a job. Just as Ruth was told by Boaz to walk behind the gleaners to pick up what was dropped, Maimonides sought the balance between handing out to the poor and teaching the poor the skills needed to step up from poverty.

Further in the parshah, there is a commandment against erecting a stone pillar, for such the eternal detests. There are several prohibitions against idol worship throughout the Torah and we can look at this as metaphors for modern idol worship, with many symbols: rampant narcissism and a sense of entitlement, materialism at the expense of family or community and covering up our inadequacies rather than accepting who we are, which really is an insult to the image of G-d in which we were created.

Because society must deal with those who openly violate the law, the text deals with civil and criminal law. To make sure that an alleged criminal is not falsely convicted, there is a commandment that at least two eye-witnesses be present and if one of the witnesses if found to have lied, then they will also suffer the punishment. In fact, in capital cases, the witness was intended to be the first one to invoke the punishment, which would certainly make one think twice about condemning anyone to death. This reminds me of a conversation I had with a coworker about 25 years ago. He was a veteran, who served in Europe and if war had broken out between the US and the Soviets, he was responsible for firing a nuclear missile at targets in Eastern Europe. I think this was about the time that an airliner was shot down over Korea and I was angry and said that the US should strike back hard. My coworker said something profound. He said, “Mitch, if you are willing to be the one firing the missile at what would likely also be civilian targets, only then you could talk so tough.” Who was I to condemn anyone to death, if I was not willing to be the one to inflict the first strike?

With regard to eventual leadership, the text foretells the eventual installation of a king over Israel, with the following requirement,

“…And it shall be, when he sits on his throne of kingship, that he shall write for himself a copy of this Teaching… and it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to revere the Eternal, his God, to keep all the words of this teaching… “
On the surface, the meaning of these verses is clear: a king of Israel must be guided by Torah in everything he does. However, why the command to write it himself?
When we do something or write something ourselves instead of having someone else do it for us, it becomes ours— there is ownership and we become more personally invested in it.

Even as Jews, who approach Jewish law liberally and modernly, Torah is the closest thing we have to G-d’s blueprint for how to live our lives. Even if you only study, perhaps write in your own words and practice the ethical commandments of Leviticus 19:9 – 19:18, you might find that you will approach life differently. And let’s face it, nobody can live our lives for us—we have to do that ourselves. Writing our Torah, or writing the script of our lives according to Jewish wisdom teachings and guidance, we are more likely to live a life of service to others. And service to others really means serving G-d.

A friend recently shared that in a workshop, he learned that we cause hurt, pain and suffering to ourselves and to others whenever we either overuse or underuse the gifts G-d gave to us. …. Overuse or underuse the gifts G-d gave to us. Overusing our gifts is arrogant and self-serving. Not using the gifts we were given by G-d is ripping G-d off in an effort to stay safe and comfortable. Marianne Williamson once said that “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure… While we ask ourselves, who are we to be brilliant, talented and gifted, when the real question is who are we NOT to be brilliant, talented and gifted? The thank you to G-d is using our brilliance, talents and gifts in service to others.

It seems today we compartmentalize our lives; however, Judaism and its wisdom teaching asks us to live not in broken disconnected compartments, but as one whole person all of the time. Perhaps Jewish integrity means consistently applying Jewish values that we learn from Torah in every aspect of our lives.

What if we can all be just as holy as the greatest people described in our sacred texts, just as transformed as Jacob, just as intuitive as Joseph, just a humble and an in-service to others leader like Moses. How do we get there? We just have to choose to live with Jewish integrity— the choice is ours. We already write a page of “Torah” each and every day through our choices and actions. The question is: what will we choose to write next?

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