Shoftim By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Shoftim (שופטים)
Torah: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

“When you enter the land which the LORD your God is giving you…let no one be found among you who is a sorcerer, a soothsayer, a diviner, a magician, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts….”   –Deut. 18:9-11

Who’s that? The constable? Oh, it’s you, Stranger—I saw you at the village well, and thought that, perhaps, you might be inquiring after my services. I am but a poor woman, without any children—the Lord, in His questionable wisdom, did not bless me with any little ones, prior to my late husband’s passing.

Who was my husband, may demons strike him? (Spits into the fire) His name was Hevel ben Chor, a sandal-maker, though he never pursued his calling for any amount of time—he preferred hanging about the village tavern, wasting whatever small pennies he could steal from me, to drown his imagined woes in barley beer and wine. I loved him—years ago, but he brought me nothing but grief. How did he die? I heard that Hevel got into a bar-fight with One-Eyed Shalom over a dice game. Shalom accused Hevel or cheating, Hevel took out his awl, and One-Eye pulled a knife.

Constable Seder ben Chok came to tell me, but I did not grieve; no, not one minute. I thought, “Well, good riddance,” and let the town bury him in the Potter’s Field.

Since that time, I have been secretly reading a palm here, auguring sheep’s entrails there, and reading the stars for a fee—it is forbidden, but Constable Seder ben Chok turns a blind eye to my activities—he is a kind man on the inside, and knows that I would die, otherwise. There is no provision in the Town Regulations for maintaining aging widows, and no one would buy me as a debt-slave; I am too old and weak.

Instead, I depend on the kind-hearted folk of our village to leave me a gift, here and there—Ofeh the Baker will save me day-old bread, though I must soak it in water to get it past my nearly-toothless gums. And Yerek the greengrocer will make me up a basket of fruit and vegetables—they are long past fresh or ripe, but I am not fussy. A woman in Israelite society cannot afford to be.

Call upon the Town Council? Why, why on earth would I do that? They care little about poor folk such as I. To speak truth, they do issue a proclamation during the harvest season to leave the corners of the field and the gleanings falling from the harvest-wagons, there on the ground. It is a challenge for these old legs to hurry to the fields of rich farmers, such as Boaz, and gather the grain that I cannot winnow, anyway—my fingers are racked with swelling, and often refuse to bend or grasp.

Complain? I did not think that I was complaining, Stranger—I do trust in the Lord, and am thankful for any scrap of meat or fish that my better-off neighbors can spare. When Passover arrives, the town mayor himself sponsors a feast, where we recline like royalty and munch on matzo, dipping it in the horseradish to remind us how harsh and sharp life can be—as if I needed any reminding!

My favorite activity is when some foolish farmer or lovestruck boy  creeps into my hut, asking me to read his palm. “Cross mine with silver, first,” I answer him, and, though the fee be but a few clay coins, I am content. And I do love to sit outside my hut on a cool spring night, feeling the welcome breeze that drives away the hamseen-heat. I dream of what might have happened if I had married Sechar the herdsman, whose courtship I refused—I was but a foolish young girl, then….Yes, those were days long ago, long ago….

Oh, are you leaving, Stranger? Well, thank you for hearing out a poor old woman’s tales. Different? What do I wish had come out differently? Well, had I been born a man, perhaps people would take more notice. Those prohibitions against witchcraft, which prevent my practicing my trade (for so do I call it), would not exist, had it been a man’s activity.

I do not know why the Lord God, in His wisdom, seems so dead-set against us poor single women making a living. Perhaps I will take this query to Navo, our local prophet, when he comes around this way. Or—ha!—perhaps I will attend the next Town Council Meeting, and put the question to them, directly—how do you think they would respond, Stranger?

Good night, and God be with you.

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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