Torah Weekly

For the week ending 25 August 2012 / 6 Elul 5772

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.


No Stone Unturned

“Do not erect for yourself an altar of only one stone.”

‘Organized religion’ is one of those phrases which is guaranteed to bring distaste to the Western liberal sensitivity.

Being part of a group smacks of regimentation. We who were educated in the ‘liberal enlightened’ tradition were taught to cherish the moment alone with one’s Creator, in a field, on top of a hill, under the stars. And, to be sure, the individual communicating with his Creator not only finds a place in Judaism but is Judaism’s bequest to the world.

But there is another side to Divine worship. One that is much maligned and misunderstood: that of the klal (the entire group) and its Maker.

There are two kinds of altars. An altar made from a single block of stone and an altar made from many stones. There are two kinds of Divine service. That of the individual and that of the klal. The single block represents the service of the individual; that of many stones represents the service of the complete group.

In this week’s portion of the week we learn that the Torah forbids an altar consisting of only one stone. Even though in the times of the Avot the fathers of the Jewish People) the single stone altar was beloved, subsequently, however, it became the preferred method of idolatry and thus was no longer fitting for the service of G-d.

The prophet Eliyahu erected an altar of twelve stones. Twelve is the number of the Tribes of Israel. The Altar of twelve stones symbolizes the unity of the Jewish People in the service of G-d; the klal becoming like one person. The stones are separate but they join together and become the instrument through which Man can serve his Creator. The individual’s desire its appropriate expression when channeled through this mystical ‘one person’ who is the Jewish People.

Thus it was that the Forefathers were able to build altars of only one stone. For they were the entire Jewish People in embryo. But once the Jewish People are ‘born’ at Sinai, the service of the individual finds its proper fulfillment in making up the ‘one person’ who is Israel.

The spiritual light that we receive in this world is radiated as a totality to all parts of Creation. There is no place which is devoid of His radiance. Thus, when we approach our Creator, it must be as a totality, joined like the stones of the altar. For with even one stone missing, there is no altar.

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