Parshas Shoftim

Towards the end of this week’s Sedra the Torah instructs Klal-Yisroel as to how to proceed if and when they wish to annex additional territory to Eretz-Yisroel by waging war. When laying siege to a city, the Torah tells us, Klal-Yisroel should first call upon the city and ask for their surrender, making sure to phrase the request as an offer of peace.

This command seems a bit peculiar. The Torah tells us that when we want to wage war we should first ask for peace, really meaning that we should first ask them to surrender. Even though this seems wise, why do we need the Torah to spell this out for us?

The Medrash (see both Medrash Rabba and Tanchuma for varying versions) uses this Passuk as a platform to highlight the concept of peace. The Medrashim draw on a large number of scenarios throughout the Torah in which the concept of peace is emphasized. In such cases, an individual, the Torah itself, or even Hashem seem to alter actual occurrences (creating white lies or the like) in order for peace to prevail

Chazal tell us similar proofs for the importance of peace in other cases and places in the Torah. In the instance of a Sota (a women who is suspected of committing adultery by her husband) how Hashem commands for his name to be erased and mixed as part of a potion that the Sota was to drink. She would drink this potion in order to prove her innocence. Chazal explain that we are to see from this that peace is the most important thing to Hashem.

While there are all sorts of places that peace is so clearly stressed as a focal point in Judaism, whether mentioned in the aforementioned Medrashim or whether not, this statement of asking another city is especially singled out by the Medrash to be the place that the importance of peace should be discussed. The Medrash explains that the reason that it chose to single out our case is because of its unique contrast: while we are preparing for war and we are about to wage war we must pull ourselves back we must attempt a peaceful approach.

It seems that the idea the Passuk and hence the Medrash are trying to convey is that peace is so absolutely important that even when it looks the furthest thing from reality we must still give it a chance. While we are about to wage war against a foreign jurisdiction in order to conquer them and it seems that there would be no way that they would recede on their own accord, nonetheless the Torah tells us that we must first ask them to.

In every scenario in life we must first try a peaceful approach it even if in the end we have no choice but to fight. we must always realize that halevai we should be able to do so peacefully. We must set the tone for all of life in peaceful vain.

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One of the many fascinating Mitzvos in this week’s Sedra centers on fruit trees and the requirements of war. We are told that when Klal-Yisroel, over the course of laying siege to an enemy city, will find it necessary to build fortifications, it must first use the wood from non-fruit producing trees. The Passuk gives the reason as being Ki Headam Eitz Hasadeh… (literally translated “is the tree of the field a man that it should be besieged by you?”).

While the Mephorshim grapple with the meaning of this sentence, the Ibn-Ezra explains it to mean that since we derive our sustenance in part from fruits of the trees we mustn’t cut down such trees. The Ramban concurs with the Ibn-Ezra, and notes that this Mitzva doesn’t mean that we cannot cut down such trees when needed. The text is instead indicating a definite preference that we use non-fruit bearing trees whenever possible. This the Ramban deduces from the fact that the Passuk says that we may only cut down a tree that we know bears no fruits for battle related needs. The Ramban explains that since the text doesn’t merely say that only non-fruit bearing trees may be cut down, but rather that only trees that we know not to bear fruits may be felled, it is evident that it is coming to teach us that it is only a preference.

The Seforno, however, views this Passuk as coming to each us a different lesson. He says that the reason the Passuk stresses a tree that we know has no fruit is in order to tell us that even if it really is an apple tree, but we know that it no longer bears fruit, then even though it is theoretically a fruit tree it may still be cut for war purposes.

There is a very elementary question here: if Klal-Yisroel is in the midst of fighting a war, and in war Klal-Yisroel will take many a human life, why is it davka in this context that the Torah tells us to spare fruit trees because of their potential ability to help sustain human life?

If we adopt the Ramban’s approach (that the Torah is just telling us that there is a preference for non-fruit bearing trees as a source for fortification materials) perhaps we could explain that the Torah is coming to teach us an important lesson about the value of human life. While Klal-Yisroel is in the midst of fighting a war, while Klal-Yisroel has a license to kill, Hashem comes to command us to be diligent with regard even to items merely related to the human existence. War is by definition a confusing time (The expression ‘the fog of war’ expresses well the ambiguity and uncertainty that accompany military operations). At a time when we may not understand why Hashem has commanded us to annihilate a particular nation or nations (the Conquest of the Land), Hashem is telling us not to lose focus. In circumstances under which we can easily lose sight of the importance of human life, Hashem reminds us of its centrality – by telling us to be careful, even with things indirectly related to it – fruit trees.

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This week’s Sedra opens with the injunction to the people to appoint ‘judges and officers’. The Passuk continues and states העם משפט צדקושפטו את– ‘and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment’. The Ibn-Ezra explains that this latter statement applies to the Shoftim (judges) and not to the Shotrim (police). Seemingly, the Ibn-Ezra is bothered by the apparent lack of relevance of the Shotrim to the judging of people, since as law enforcement officers their role is merely to see to it that the judges’ verdict is carried out. The Ibn Ezra seems to be the only one bothered by this point. The other Meforshim, it would seem, maintain that these last words of ושפטו את העם refer to the Shotrim as well. What do the other Meforshim do with the Ibn-Ezra’s difficulty?

The Kli-Yakar points out that the Passuk doesn’t seem to be commanding that the dayanim should judge righteously, but rather is stating a fact: if we appoint the right people for these jobs, they will then judge us righteously.

The Kli-Yakar seems to be suggesting that Moshe Rabeinu is commanding us not just to appoint judges, but that we must appoint judges in a way that will lead to Mishpat Tzedek (Righteous Justice). If that is the case, it would then appear that the police are somehow integral to righteous judgment. The question remains: why?

A policeman, as a law enforcement officer, is there to ensure that the laws are followed and that the judges’ rulings are obeyed. In order for people to take what they are doing seriously they must know and realize that what they are doing has an impact. If a judge isn’t under the impression that his ruling will be followed he will in all likelihood not take the case at hand seriously and therefore won’t judge the case properly. Police are thus integral to the judges’ ruling righteously. It is only when tribunals are complemented by an enforcing agency that justice can exist as a reality in the first place.

Nowadays the reality is that our judges and leaders have limited real power. We can try to compensate for this lack by being willing to accept our Rabbonim’s rulings, thus giving them a sense of security in what they are telling us to do.

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This week’s Sedra opens with Hashem instructing us to appoint judges and officers (law enforcement personnel). The Torah then tells us that anyone who is in the position of judging others should not take bribes as these will blind the eyes of the wise – חכמים and pervert the words of Tzadikim. Chazal explain that while it is obvious that one may not take payoffs in order to give the wrong ruling the Torah is telling us that it is also forbidden to accept bribery to give the correct ruling.

The Torah is in effect telling us that when by accepting a bribe one is tainting one’s ability to remain objective, thereby delegitimizing any subsequent ruling. It would seem that this is what the Torah is trying to convey by telling us that bribery blinds the eyes of the wise. The Torah is always very particular and exacting in its choice in words – so why does it choose to describe the negative impact of bribery on the wise by calling it blinding, and on the righteous as distorting their speech?

Chazal (Pirkei Avos) tell us that a wise person is someone who can see the future – in other words someone with foresight. Chazal are telling us that the defining factor as to whether someone is wise or not is whether that someone has foresight or not. Chazal are essentially telling us that wisdom is based upon vision and perception. This is also the thrust of our Parsha on this subject. It would also appear from our Parsha that righteousness inherently includes sensitivity in speech as one of its critical components.

Hashem gave all of mankind human intellect and human compassion. Everyone has some sort of balance of these two crucial elements. This balance at whatever equilibrium point it exists can and should allow us to understand and grasp much. What blinds us and numbs our sensitivities is only our allowing our greed to get the better of us and thereby taint our true objectiveness.

Understanding truth and being objective is natural. Let us not allow synthetic greed to taint integrity.

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This week’s Haftorah is read from Yishayohu and is the fourth of the שבע דנחמתא. The Haftorah starts with Hashem telling us that He is our Comforter. Hashem then continues by urging us over and over throughout the Haftorah to stand up and regain our strength. Hashem tells us to wake up from the sleep of Exile into the wakefulness of Geula. There is a very clear theme in the Haftorah: that the Geula is a reality to which we will one day awaken. In other words, the Geula isn’t something that we will necessarily be expecting. It is rather something that will happen to us suddenly.

The Haftorah mentions two other very important points. The first is that we are living in a constant state of fear from our oppressors.   In reality, says the Navi, we do not have any such oppressors. The Navi tells us that we are living in the Geula without realizing it. The second point is that the children of Yerushalayim aren’t taking care of it. The first of these two points is very relevant to our needing to be awakened but the second isn’t. If the Geula is here and we are just oblivious to it we must be awakened. However, the statement that no one is caring for Yerushalayim doesn’t have anything to do with our being oblivious. Right after the Navi tells us that Yerushalayim will be leaderless, he once again urges us to wake up to the Geula.

If until the time of the Geula Yerushalayim is to be without any caretakers or leaders, then once Yerushalayim has caretakers the Geula must have already arrived. Even once leadership does develop, the Navi feels the need to urge us to awaken to the Geula because, it would seem, we would still be in some sort of state of stupor, or unconsciousness. We still will not realize – without the effort the Navi urges on us – that we can take care of Yerushalayim, and that the Geula has already come.

Klal-Yisroel is a battered nation that has survived every attempt to destroy it. By now we should be fearless; we should know that there cannot ever be a threat to our existence – but for some reason most Jews are still afraid. What allowed us as Jews to overcome every single threat that loomed over us? World history is replete with the fall of empires that have succeeded one another. When these collapse, they usually dissolve, are absorbed into, the conquering state, thereby disappearing altogether. Am-Yisroel is different. Am-Yisroel has something that distinguishes it from all other nations: the Torah.

Am-Yisroel was nearly wiped out many times but those who survived continued on, retaining their identity because they clung firmly to the Torah. Jews who unfortunately have little or no connection to the Torah will be afraid of annihilation because for them we are just another entity.

The presence of Torah Jews in Eretz-Yisroel is potential leadership for Yerushalayim. While we await the Geula eagerly every Torah Jew that comes to Eretz-Yisroel contributes to setting the stage for the Geula.

By strengthening Torah learning and Torah observance in Eretz-Yisroel we are taking huge steps towards the Geula.