Torah Weekly

For the week ending 10 September 2005 / 6 Elul 5765

Parshat Shoftim

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael to appoint judges and officers in their cities. A bribe of even an insignificant sum is forbidden. Trees are not to be planted near Hashem's altar, as was the way of idolaters. Blemishes in animals designated for offerings and other points of disqualification are listed. The Great Sanhedrin is to make binding decisions on new situations according to Torah criteria to prevent the fragmentation of the Torah. A very learned scholar who refuses to accept the Halachic decisions of the Sanhedrin incurs the death penalty. A Jewish king may only have possessions and symbols of power commensurate with the honor of his office, but not for self-aggrandizement. He is to write for himself two sifrei Torah, one to be kept with him wherever he goes, so that he doesn't become haughty. Neither the kohanim nor the levi'im are to inherit land in the Land of Israel, rather they are to be supported by the community by a system of tithes. All divination is prohibited. Hashem promises the Jewish People that He will send them prophets to guide them, and Moshe explains how a genuine prophet may be distinguished from a false one. Cities of refuge are to be provided an accidental killer to escape the blood-avenger from the deceased's family. However, someone who kills with malice is to be handed over to the blood-avenger. Moshe cautions Bnei Yisrael not to move boundary markers to increase their property. Two witnesses who conspire to "frame" a third party are to be punished with the very same punishment that they conspired to bring upon the innocent party. A kohen is to be anointed specifically for when Israel goes to war, to instill trust in Hashem. Among those disqualified from going to war is anyone who has built a new house but not lived in it yet, or anyone who is fearful or fainthearted. An enemy must be given the chance to make peace, but if they refuse, all the males are to be killed. Fruit trees are to be preserved and not cut down during the siege. If a corpse is found between cities, the elders of the nearest city must take a heifer, slaughter it, and wash their hands over it, saying that they are not guilty of the death.


As Lovely As a Tree?

"You shall not plant for yourselves an idolatrous tree any tree near the Altar of G-d." (16:21)

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earths sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

In this weeks Torah portion we learn that it is forbidden to plant trees in the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple. What is the reason for this prohibition? Wouldnt trees have been a wonderful way to enhance the beauty of the Holy Temple?

At one time, it was the custom of idolaters to plant beautiful trees, called asheirot, at the entrance of their temples.

These trees would be venerated as holy. In the Book of Shoftim G-d commanded the Judge Gidon to "Destroy the altar of Baal that belongs to your father, and cut down the asheira next to it."

The Torah prohibited the planting of any tree in the Beit Hamikdash or its forecourt. The Torah Masters then extended the prohibition to include the entire Temple Mount.

However, apart from the connection to idol worship, there is a more subtle problem here.

When something is very beautiful, its always a challenge to place that thing in its correct perspective. Whether its a beautiful person or a beautiful view, or a beautiful tree, the nature of beauty is to say, "Look at me! Im so beautiful" Its difficult to look beyond the surface of the beauty.

In Hebrew, one of the words for beauty is shapir. The name Shifra comes from this root, as does the common Jewish surname Shapiro. In the Book of Iyov it says, "By His breath the Heavens are spread (shifra)" (Iyov 26:13). Iyov describes how G-ds breath spreads aside the cloud cover to reveal the Heavens beyond. The word to spread aside, to reveal is from that same root, shifra. In Jewish thought, something is only beautiful to the extent that it reveals what is beyond, what is inside. The part of the body where the personality of a person, his inside, is revealed is the face. In Hebrew the word for face and inside are the same pnim/panim.

In Jewish thought, a beauty that reveals nothing more than itself cannot be called beautiful. "Art for Arts sake" has no place in the lexicon of Jewish thought. Jewish beauty is the revelation of the inner.

On Friday night, a Jewish husband sings a song of praise to wife called Aishet Chayil a Woman of Valor. Towards the end of the poem, it says, "Charm is false and beauty empty. A woman who fears G-d, she should be praised." When charm and beauty dont reveal their source, their pnim, then they are false and empty. Charm and beauty by themselves are false and empty, but when they are ennobled and animated by an interior life of holiness and spirituality they radiate the purpose of their gift.

Similarly in the Holy Temple, the beauty of a tree can lead the mind in one of two ways: It can either lead to thoughts of the kindness of the Creator of the tree, how He brought into being such a beautiful thing, or it can stop at the surface: "Wow! Thats beautiful!"

Mother Nature is so beautiful that its easy to forget that Mother Nature has a Father.

  • Sources: Joyce Kilmer For Mrs. Henry Mills Alden

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