Numbers in [square brackets] are the mitzva-count of the Sefer HaChinuch.
KOHEN – First Aliya – 18 p’sukim (16:18-17:13)
Judges to clarify the law (and try cases) and agents of the court to enforce the law are to be appointed throughout the Land , and they are to carry out their duties fairly. They must not slant the law, nor show favoritism, nor take bribes which blind and pervert even the fairest and most righteous of people. Justice is to be ardently pursued so that we will be worthy of living and flourishing in Eretz Yisrael.
What if a judge was going to vote in favor of the briber, even without the bribe. Justice is still being served. Is the bribe any less a serious offense? The answer is NO. A bribe is a bribe. One leads to another, and justice will be perverted.
[SDT] TZEDEK TZEDEK TIRDOF – Justice you shall pursue. The doubling of the word TZEDEK can be seen as a reminder that not only shall justice be pursued, but the means employed in the pursuit shall also be just. We do not subscribe to the concept that the end justifies the means. TZEDEK B’TZEDEK, justice with justice you shall pursue.
Planting trees in the Temple courtyard (or near the Mizbei’ach) is forbidden  – it is an idolatrous practice. (This prohibition still applies today.) Erecting monuments (as is done in idol worship) to G-d (even with “proper” motives) is forbidden .
[SDT] Perversion of justice is juxtaposed to idolatry to emphasize how serious is the former sin. Pirkei Avot states that “the sword comes to the world because of perversion of justice… exile comes because of idolatry.” Both sins cause us to lose our hold on Eretz Yisrael. And conversely, remaining faithful to G-d and dealing with each other with honesty and justice will secure us our hold on our Land.
The Gemara states that “appointing inappropriate judges is tantamount to planting a tree near the Altar”. Planting a tree in an attempt to beautify the Temple, is a completely misguided act. The beauty of the Beit HaMikdash flows from itself and its spiritual essence. To think that external decoration can contribute to the beauty is to lack understanding of what the Beit HaMikdash is. So too, to appoint a judge because of personal appearance, wealth, stature, etc. (and not because of scholarship and worthiness to judge) is equally “missing the point”.
Sacrificing blemished animals is forbidden . (The guidelines for permanent or temporary blemishes as defined in the Talmud do not always match a layman’s perception.)
The Torah next stresses that idolatry is a most serious sin. If we find among us a fellow Jew who worships anyone other than G-d, we must most scrupulously investigate the case against him (or her). If the person is convicted by the court, the punishment is death by stoning, thereby uprooting evil from our midst.
It is the eye-witness testimony of a minimum of two that shall be necessary to convict. No one can be sentenced to die (or be otherwise punished) by the testimony of only a solitary witness. The witnesses themselves are often to be involved in the carrying out of the sentence.
The Torah next establishes the mechanism for the perpetuation of Judaism throughout the generations (by emphasizing, among other things, that if disputes arise or a halachic point needs clarification, that we are to consult the judges IN OUR TIME) and the dynamic applicability of Halacha for all times (by giving the Sages the mechanism to enact laws for the protection of the Torah and its proper observance). We are required to do all that the Sanhedrin (Supreme Halachic Authority) teaches and commands . We must not veer from their rulings “neither to the right nor to the left” .
The introduction to the Rambam’s Book of Mitzvot contains 14 “rules” by which the Rambam counts the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. Rule #1 states that rabbinic mitzvot such as Chanuka and Purim shall not be counted among the Torah’s 613 mitzvot. This might seem obvious, but the Rambam feels compelled to formulate this rule in opposition to previous mitzva-counters who DID include some “rabbinic mitzvot” among Taryag. Why would someone consider the post-biblical mitzvot of Chanuka and Purim as Torah law?
Similarly, why is it that the bracha for mitzvot, which states “… G-d… Who has sanctified with his mitzvot and commanded us…” is also recited for six rabbinic commandments? (They are Shabbat & Yom Tov candles, Chanuka candles, Megilat Esther plus other Megilot, Netilat Yadayim, Hallel, Eiruv, the three types.)
The answer to both questions is based on the p’sukim in the beginning of this week’s sedra which speak about the authority of the Sanhedrin – mitzvot 495 & 496 above. In essence, the Torah commands us to observe rabbinic law. Therefore, it can be argued that rabbinic law IS Torah Law. It follows that one might consider counting Chanuka and Purim among the 613, and it makes sense to use the mitzva- bracha formula for Rabbinic mitzvot.
The Rambam does not argue against this idea. He insists, however, that we cannot possibly count Rabbinic mitzvot separately among the 613. This could lead to the untenable situation of having to readjust the mitzva count each time a Sanhedrin would make a new rabbinic mitzva.
One who does not light Chanuka candles, for example, is at the same time in non-fulfillment of a rabbinic command and double violation of the mitzvot of “taaseh” and “lo tasur”. Does this mean that violations of rabbinic law are equivalent to (or even more severe) than violations of Torah law? The general understanding is that the Torah “put its authority” behind rabbinic law, but rabbinic law remains “one notch”, so to speak, below Torah law.
Punishments differ, procedures in case of doubt differ, applicability differs.
OTOH, we cannot over-emphasize the power of pronouncements of the Sanhedrin. A Torah scholar/authority who disagreed with the Sanhedrin AND either acts upon his point of view or teaches others to do so, can be subject to a death penalty (following an elaborate sequence of trials and warnings).
Included in Sanhedrin-edicts which we are obligated to follow are their presentation of Oral Law, their derivation of Torah Law by the 13 “Talmudic” principles of analysis, both of which would be considered “D’O'rayta” (Torah law), and the various decrees and measures that the Sanhedrin enacts as protection for Torah Laws, or because of similarity to Torah Law, or for whatever other reason they have for their rulings.
We who stood at Sinai, accepted a “package deal” of Judaism. We are committed to the Written Word, to the Oral Law as taught by the Talmud and as presented and clarified by successive Sanhedrins, to Rabbinic Law as promulgated throughout the generations. We are links in the Chain of Tradition that was forged at Sinai, and we must do our share to keep the chain strong and extend it to the next generation and beyond.
A Torah scholar with authority to render Halachic decisions who defies the Sanhedrin and encourages others to disregard their ruling, can (under specific circumstances) be put to death. Such an individual is known as “zaken mamrei” and is ultimately judged by the Great Sanhedrin. This shall serve as a deterrent to the People not to behave similarly. The average Jew is not similarly subject to possible execution, but still is warned of the seriousness of flouting Rabbinic authority.
LEVI – Second Aliya – 7 p’sukim (17:14-20)
When the People will enter the Land, conquer it, and settle down, and they will ask for a king (like the nations around them – this phrase contains an implicit warning against asking for the wrong reasons), it is a mitzva to “place over us” a king (of G-d’s choosing) from among the Jewish People ; we may not choose a non-Jew as king . The king must not possess too many horses  (i.e. in excess of those necessary for his army, etc.) nor may he lead the People back to Egypt – it is forbidden for us to dwell in Egypt . (Visits are permitted, as would be living there if “properly” conquered by Israel.) A king may not have an excessive number of wives (not more than 18) , nor may he amass excessive wealth . (referring to wealth for its own sake; any funds necessary for running the kingdom are excluded from the prohibition.)
A king must write a Sefer Torah for himself  (in addition to the one he is commanded to write as a Jew – mitzva #613). This Torah is to be copied d from THE Sefer Torah of the Beit HaMikdash. A king of Israel has awesome powers over his subjects. He therefore requires the “humbling force” and moral restraints of the Torah constantly before him. The Torah is his guide for proper rule. A king who is guided by Torah law and values is a great asset to the People of Israel. A king who isn’t, is our worst liability.
SH’LISHI – third Aliya – 5 p’sukim (18:1-5)
The Kohanim-Leviim are not to receive land in Eretz Yisrael  (other than the cities which are given to them by the Tribes) nor share in the spoils of war  – their holy service in the Mikdash is considered their share.
(Among other gifts to the kohen,) the kohen is to receive specific parts of every animal slaughtered for food – the forelimb, the tongue and surrounding area, the stomach and surrounding fat , T’ruma from produce , and the first-shearing of the sheep . These gifts are due the kohen because of his sacred service.
 Whereas T’ruma is “kodesh” and therefore cannot be actually given to a kohen in our times because of the prevalent condition of ritual impurity, the other two gifts mentioned are not sacred, therefore can be given today.
 T’ruma obviously applies only in Israel. But so does “First-shearing”. Less obvious, because it is not an agricultural mitzva.
 The “meat-gifts” (which includes the tongue) can be given to a “bat kohen”, even if she is married to a non-kohen.
R’VI’I – Fourth Aliya – 8 p’sukim (18:6-13)
Kohanim and Leviim are supposed to distribute their workloads at Holiday time equally among the different family units .
Another warning follows, to be on guard against learning from and adopting any of the abominable practices of the nations that we will encounter in Eretz Yisrael.
The implication here is that we must not “learn to do” the terrible things, but we may learn about them in order to understand their ways and to better instruct our fellow Jews in this topic. (Tur Shulchan Aruch, based on the Gemara)
On the practical side of this ruling, one has to be very well established in his own Judaism before reading and learning about other world religions and pagan practices. Such a study should be done under the supervision of one’s mentor.
Shun the practices of passing one’s children through fire (a vivid example of a reprehensible pagan practice, [counted elsewhere], divination and certain types of meditations meant to “read the future” , astrological predictions [counted elsewhere; some other aspects of astrology are not halachically objectionable, but beware!), reliance on omens [counted elsewhere], conjuring & witchcraft , incantations , mediums , oracles , and necromancy (seances, contacting the dead) .
All the above practices – and there are many different opinions as to exactly what each Torah-term refers to – pull a Jew away from his straightforward, “pure” relationship with G-d. We must strive for that direct relationship.
CHAMISHI – Fifth Aliya – 22 p’sukim (18:14-19:13)
It is the other nations who listen to the practitioners of the occult arts. G-d did not make us so. We have prophets (like Moshe) who arise from our midst, and it is their prophecies to which we must hearken . This was part of the “deal” made with G-d at Sinai, when we asked that we not hear G-d’s “voice” directly. G-d agreed with our request on the condition that we would listen to the true prophets who would communicate to us what G-d demands of us. Anyone who does not listen to the Word of G-d through the prophet will be “answerable to Him”.
But a prophet dares not speak in G-d’s name under false pretenses , or speak in the name of an idolatry . How are we to know what is and what isn’t G-d’s word? A prophet must have a 100% “track record” – anything less is an indication of a false prophet.
Clarification… Prophecies of bad things to befall the People can be reversed through sincere repentance and therefore do not cast doubt upon the prophet.
There is a tricky balance that must be struck vis-a-vis prophecy. We must be exceedingly careful to utterly reject the false prophet, yet we must harbor no suspicion of the true prophet (once he have demonstrated his “credentials”) – to do so would weaken the link to G-d’s Word.
A prophet cannot change the Torah. If he does, then we know that he is a false prophet. A prophet cannot command us to do an act of idolatry, even a one-time act. If he does, he is a false prophet.
But a prophet can command us to violate a mitzva on a temporary basis. If a (proven) prophet were to command us to violate the Shabbat – just this one time, we must (not just “may”) violate the Shabbat. If we don’t, we are liable to the death penalty.
That is serious. It is difficult for us to identify with prophecy on a practical basis, because “we are so out of practice”. Nonetheless, prophecy is a very significant part of the fundamental beliefs of Judaism.
We must not be afraid to defy a false prophet and bring him to justice (and execution) .
Of course, we are not supposed to be afraid to do any mitzva in the Torah. In the case of a false prophet, we are often dealing with a charismatic individual who might have a very large following. Defying him might be a very unpopular thing to do. The Torah is bolstering our resolve to rid ourselves of false prophets by commanding us not to be afraid.
Perhaps we can draw from this mitzva a lesson to apply to all mitzvot. Do not be afraid to keep the Shabbat, be kosher, daven Mincha, avoid Lashon HaRa, etc. etc. etc. even when doing so will meet with scoffing of others. Adhere to halacha and don’t be afraid or embarrassed to do so.
When matters are settled in Eretz Yisrael, we are required to designate another three cities of refuge . Roads to the cities are to be prepared and identified so that the killer can easily find refuge. The cities will protect the inadvertent killer from the blood-avenger of the the victim. If (when) we will merit expansion of our Land, another three cities will be selected. This is to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.
An intentional murderer also flees to a city of refuge, but is removed therefrom to stand trial. We must not ignore these situations – and those concerning assault , so that we will thereby eliminate the shedding of innocent blood and merit a good life.
SHISHI – 6th Aliya – 17 p’sukim (19:14-20:9)
One may not encroach upon another’s territory . This literally refers to the prohibition of moving a boundary-marker between your land and your neighbor’s thereby stealing some of his property. Although stealing is already forbidden (and counted among the 613), this prohibition comes to emphasize the seriousness of stealing land, specifically in Eretz Yisrael. This prohibition extends to other forms of encroach ment, e.g. unfair competition that steals someone’s business.
This latter form of MASIG G’VUL is sometimes difficult to determine. Can a particular neighborhood support two pizza shops, or is the second one in violation of this prohibition? The new lawyer who has just passed the bar gets some clients that used to belong to an older lawyer in the community. There are many situations which might not “qualify” under the letter of the law, but would be a violation of the spirit of this prohibition. Let’s put it this way: What is called for is a high degree of sensitivity to what the ramifications of one’s action will be.
It is forbidden to render judgments (in most cases) based on the testimony of a single witness ; a minimum of two witnesses are required. (Sometimes, what one person says will point the judges in a certain direction, but not as formal testimony.)
If false witnesses shall plot to victimize the accused (and their plot is uncovered in a specific way and at a specific point in the trial) they are to be punished in the manner that they plotted against their fellow .
Bearing false witness has already been prohibited by the Torah in Commandment number 9, both in Yitro and Va’etchanan. Here we have one kind of false witness – EIDIM ZOMEMIM, plotting witnesses. There is a strong element of CHOK, a commandment without clear logical reason, in this particular type of false witness. A and B testify that Lavan killed Eisav at a specific time, on a specific day, in a specific place. During the trial, C and D testify that A and B were with them on the day, at the time, in some other place, and therefore could not have possibly witnessed a murder where they claim to have done. Assuming there is nothing found lacking in the testimony of C and D, the testimony of A and B is nullified and Lavan is set free. Furthermore, C and D are now subject to the death penalty (although “regular” false testimony would “only” carry the punishment of lashes). There are many intricate and fascinating details in this topic, but to present one unusual point… If Lavan had been executed for murder based on the testimony of A and B, and then C and D came forward with their testimony, then A and B are NOT subject to the death penalty. Only when they “plotted” to have Lavan killed, but not when they actually succeeded, will they be defined as EIDIM ZO’M'MIM. Does not seem logical, but that is the decree of the Torah.
SH’VI’I – Seventh Aliya – 20 p’sukim (20:10-21:19)
Before attacking an enemy city, an offer of peace must be sent . (This applies to all enemies including Amalek, but excluding Amon and Moav.) This offer is conditional upon the acceptance of the 7 Noahide Laws and other restrictions. If these terms are not met, we attack and destroy the male population. Female captives and spoils of war may be taken, except for “7 nations” . These nations are to be totally eradicated in order to eliminate their evil influence.
When laying siege to a city, care must be taken not to destroy fruit trees . Only shade trees may be cut down so that siege equipment can be built.
This prohibition of BAL TASHCHIT includes many kinds of wanton wastefulness. It seems from the Chinuch that destroying anything of some value is a Rabbinic prohibition (except, of course, for fruit trees). This is indicated by his statement that the one who destroys something – throws a brick through a window, for no good reason – is subject to MAKAT MARDUT, the rabbinically imposed form of whipping, rather than MALKOT, the 39 lashes as ordained by the Torah.
Small point: Taking a paper clip and unbending it and then tossing it away is a minor form of BAL TASHCHIT. Buying a soda, drinking half, and throwing the rest away is a form of B”T. What, I have to drink the soda even if I don’t want to anymore? That’s not the point. These little items should make us think, think, think before we do something. And be sensitive.
And not such a small point: Wasting time is a significant form of the spirit of Bal Tashchit. This refers to the time of others as well as your own time. Everyone’s time is precious. If wasted, it cannot be reclaimed. A meeting is called for 5:00pm. 15 people are involved in this meeting. Everyone else makes an effort to be on time. You come late, and the meeting is held up for 10 minutes. What’s 10 minutes. Why the fuss about 10 minutes. The fact is that the waste of time is 150 minutes – two and a half hours. We do not know how much time we have in this world. Make the best of what time you have. (Whether this topic belongs to STEALING or WASTING is not the point. Whichever category it falls into, it is important to think about, and take measures to improve your use of time.
If a corpse is found in the field, and it is not known who has committed the murder, measurements are made to determine the nearest town. The elders of that town perform a ceremony which includes killing a calf  to emphasize the senselessness of bloodshed. The area where the ceremony is performed may never be planted nor worked . The elders proclaim that they are not responsible for the loss of life. The whole affair has a sobering effect on all involved, and hopefully there is sincere mending of ways and atonement granted by G-d because all the People now take “life” more seriously.
The final 3 p’sukim are repeated for the Maftir.
A thought about EGLA ARUFA. Reread the previous paragraph. Did you catch the strange statement about taking a calf and destroying it because innocent blood was shed. Sounds like more blood being shed. What did the calf do? It’s a hard point to understand; even harder to explain. I would say it like this. G-d is not happy (so to speak) about commanding us to take a calf and destroy it. We’re talking about no benefit at all from it. We don’t eat it. We don’t feed it to our dogs. No benefit. Total waste. The ceremony is meant to be upsetting. It is meant to make the leaders of our society take a new look at what is going on. If the result of the EGLA ARUFA is an improvement of society, then it fits into G-d’s plans. If a calf is destroyed and nothing else changes, I cannot imagine G-d being too pleased. Therefore, we have to become better people and better Jews. Otherwise, it’s really a waste.
Haftara – 24 p’sukim – Yeshayahu – 51:12-52:12
This is the 4th of the 7 haftarot of consolation. The predominant message of the haftara is that G-d has a special relationship with the People of Israel (an appropriate reminder for the beginning of Elul) and that we have nothing to be afraid of, because the end to difficult times is coming. This can be summed up by the end of the famous saying (song) of Rabbi Nachman – “And the essential thing is not to be afraid at all”. The opening word “Anochi” refers to G-d, specifically with the connotation of “Midat Ha-Rachamim”, the Divine Attribute of Mercy. The word is doubled for emphasis, as are several other words in this haftara.