Excerpted from Dr. Mandell Ganchow Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah Click here to buy the book
by Rabbi Kenneth Hain
Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel, a leader of Spanish Jewry during the 1492 expulsion, survived and moved to Venice. There, in 1503, he began his massive commentary on the Torah. When he explains the section in our parashah dealing with how judges respond to difficult questions of Jewish law, he makes a very remarkable comment: “This section [of Torah] is, without a doubt, a basic foundation of the entire Torah...” He was referring to the words:
If there arises a matter too hard for you in judgment...go to... the judge that shall be in those days...and they shall declare... the sentence of judgment.... According to the Torah which they teach you, and according to the judgment which they tell you, you must do; Do not turn aside from the word which they declare to you, to the right nor to the left (Devarim 17:8-11).
Clearly this passage is important, but why would it be considered a “foundation of the entire Torah”? As the Abarbanel explains, every era will be confronted with new questions, new challenges and new issues. If we only have the text of the Torah for guidance, we will become confused, struggling to find a clear answer to the problems. We need people who are invested with the capacity to make the Torah a living document. The Torah must be interpreted and applied by the shoftim, the judges, of the time. This notion is indeed a foundation of Torah.
To support this idea, let us contrast two pesukim. In our parashah we read, “And they shall judge the people with righteous judgement - mishpat tzedek” (Devarim 16:18). Clearly, the Torah must be applied in its true and just form. It must follow our sacred tradition handed down to us from Sinai. This pasuk, however, must be understood alongside a similar pasuk in Parashat Yitro: “And they judged the people in all seasons - be-chol et” (Shemot 18:26). This verse teaches that the Torah’s teachings must be applied in the context of the time. For our tradition to properly function, judgments must be both “mishpat tzedek,” following the law of our mesorah, as well as “be-chol et,” applied to the contemporary moment.
We can suggest that Shoftim is our “foundation” for another reason. The Midrash Tanchuma (Devarim 15) sees a link in our parashah to the reason Hashem chose the Jewish People for their unique mission in the world. The earliest source for our special role is in Bereishit 18:19: “That they shall keep the way of Hashem to do righteousness and justice - tzedakah u-mishpat.” We are charged with our basic mission even before the Torah is given at Har Sinai. It underlies all that we do. It tells us that however careful we are in keeping the mitzvoth of the Torah, we must make sure our lives are based on the values of tzedakah u-mishpat, charity and justice, compassion and integrity. The midrash concludes that this is ultimately what protects us a people. It notes that our parashah is followed by “When you go out to war …” (Devarim 20:1). Our ethical behavior affects all that we do, even our ability to defeat the enemies of Israel.
Furthermore, the Rambam (Hilchot De’ot 1:7) writes about his well-known “middle path,” calling it the “derech Hashem,” which he then links to our father Avraham, quoting the verse stated above, “For I have known him, that he will command his descendants and his household after him that they shall keep the way of Hashem to do righteousness and justice—tzedek u-mishpat” (Bereishit 18:19). The Rambam traces the source of the “path of Hashem” not to Sinai or to Moshe, but all the way back to Avraham—the one who discovered the path on his own. He did not receive it from previous generations, but searched and found it himself. The Rambam seems to suggest that the derech Hashem requires us to not only receive and follow our tradition, but also to emulate Avraham and use our minds to search for understanding. In this way, we constantly seek and discover the derech Hashem for ourselves. As our parashah tells us, “If there arises a matter too hard for you in judgment...,” as we confront new situations, new questions and new problems—we will wonder. We must search for answers as Avraham did, and we must ultimately follow what our shoftim decide.
Every bar mitzvah is confronted with these basic challenges presented in Parashat Shoftim:
1. To find the balance between our ancient mesorah and living in the present time.
2. To observe the mitzvoth, but do so with compassion and integrity.
3. To follow the teachings of our Sages, but still explore and seek out the derech Hashem for oneself .
The Abarbanel has indeed offered a “foundation” for living a meaningful Jewish life. As you grow and gain more knowledge of Torah and the world around you, there will always be the “unknown”—a new reality, a new question. Your upbringing and education have prepared you with knowledge of and commitment to the derech Hashem in all its facets. With this foundation, may Hashem guide you on His path with blessing and success.
Rabbi Hain is the rav at Congregation Beth Sholom, Lawrence, New York.