Last week’s Parashat R’eh ended with: "Every man shall (‘give as he is able’ – is not in the original text), according to the blessing of YHVH your Elohim which He has given [natan] you” (Deuteronomy 16:17 italics added). Parashat Shoftim (“judges”) starts with: “You shall appoint [“titen”/give] judges and officers in all your gates, which YHVH your Elohim gives you [noten]…” Thus “giving” (in various conjugations) is clearly emphasized here, with the “giving” of YHVH making it possible for those who are His to do likewise. In fact, His “giving” appears throughout the Parasha, especially, but not exclusively, regarding “the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you…”
Several institutions, and/or their relevant supervisory regulations are being set up here for the future administration of Yisrael’s national life. To begin with, as we noticed already, the appointment of judges and officers is provided for, leading to a number of prohibitions regarding just conduct. Idolatry and the consequences of its practice follow. The establishment of arbitrators and judges in all matters leads to instructions concerning the monarchy, and the conduct of the Levites and priests with, once again, severe warning against idolatrous practices such as witchcraft. From here we skip to the much discussed topic of cities of refuge and the blood avenger, touching also on setting up boundaries. Matters pertaining to witnessing crime and false witnesses come next. The many issues associated with wars, and how to deal with corpse of a slain person whose killer is unknown, seal off our Parasha.
(1) The place where these arbitrations are to take place, is “the place which YHVH your Elohim shall choose” (v. 10).
(2) The litigants’ response is to be obedient “to the word which they [the judges] declare to you” and “you shall do according to the mouth of the law which they direct you, and according to the judgment which they deliver to you. You shall not turn aside from the word, which they declare to you right or left” (vs. 10, 11).
(3) The consequences of disobedience are: “And the man who acts with pride so as not to listen to the priest who is standing to serve YHVH your Elohim there, or to the judge, even that man shall die…” (v. 12).
The “prophet”, whose coming is predicted here, unlike the body of the judging and teaching priests which is set up in response to the people’s needs, will be “raised up” by YHVH Himself (ref. 18:15) and will represent Him in an overall manner.
In 17:14-20 the institution of the (‘earthly’) monarchy is being discussed. It will be set up in response to Yisrael’s request: “When you come into the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving to you, and have possessed it, and settled in it; and you shall say, ‘Let me set [place/put] a king over me like all the nations around me’” (17:14). Once Yisrael decides to “place” (“sim”- “put”) a king over itself YHVH will select him, providing he is “from among your brothers”. In this way the king would be like the “prophet” whom we just discussed, with the difference being that the coming of the latter was going to be solely by YHVH’s initiative. It will be incumbent upon the king to study the injunctions of the Torah. In fact, he is to make a copy of it in a book for his own use, termed here “mishneh Torah” of the root sh.n.h, meaning to “repeat” or “secondary” (v. 18). The king is also to live modestly, “so that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or to the left” (v. 20). The word for “king” in Hebrew is “melech”, the root being m.l.ch (mem, lamed, kaf) and makes for a verb which means “consult, consider different views”, such as we see in Nehemiah 5:7, where it is translated “serious thought” or “consulted”. Thus, the king is to be consulting and considering different views; a very far cry from the common idea of kingship, especially in the ancient world.
Chapter 18 verses 3 and 4 present the “priest's due from the people, from those that offer a sacrifice, whether an ox or sheep, that they shall give to the priest the leg, and the two cheeks, and the stomach, the first of your grain, of your new wine, and of your oil, and the first of the fleece of your flock, you shall give to him”. Concerning “this order of giving the priests of the fruit of the land and the fruit of the flocks,” Daat Mikra observes that it was a way to ensure that the priests will not lack “even when there is shortage or famine in the land, because whatever the people have available will also be made available to the Levites. And moreover, since the gifts are handed from one person to another, from lay people to priests, these individuals will be encountering one another as well as exchanging views with each other, and thus drawing closer together. The Israelite (that is the “non Levite”) will learn the priest’s lofty manners, and the priest will get to know the customs and way of life of the ordinary farmer, his talk and concerns, and thus together all of them will become one single holy people”. In reference to “customs” (mentioned by the commentator above), the text (18:3) reads: “And this will be the priests’ due….” The word for “due” is “mishpat” – sharing its root with the Parasha’s title, which aside from meaning “judge/judgment, litigation, govern” etc. also means “custom” or “manner” (e.g. Ex. 21:9).
Most of chapter 19 is devoted to the cities of refuge and to the “ancient boundaries”. The cities of refuge were set up in order to prevent the avenging of blood, in cases of unintentional killing. The blood avenger is called a “go’el dam”, literally “redeemer of blood” (vs. 6, 12). The role of a redeemer is to mete out justice (within his family), and bring about the required cleansing from pollution created by the shedding of innocent blood (ref. v. 10). All three of these terms, that is, “meting out justice,” “cleansing” and “pollution” are designated by the root g.a.l (gimmel, alef, lamed). In this way the term’s tri-fold meaning portrays accurately the ultimate Go’el – Redeemer - whose death, whereby He has taken upon Himself sin’s pollution, accomplished all of these and more.
As to the “ancient boundaries”; in 19:14 we read: “You may not remove your neighbor's landmark, which those formerly have set in your inheritance, which you shall inherit in the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you, to possess it”. The word for “remove” is “tasig”, of the root “sug” (samech or sin, vav, gimmel), meaning to “move away” and therefore often accompanied by “achor” (“backwards”), as is seen in 2nd Samuel 1:22: “the bow of Jonathan did not draw back (nasog achor”). He who moves the marking of a property (in order to extend his own lot) is actually “backsliding”, or “retreating” away from the ones “formerly set” and from the way they were originally determined. The emphasis here on “the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you to possess it” leads to the inference that it is He who set these boundaries in the first place, and therefore altering them would constitute “backsliding”. In Proverbs we find the same verb, “sug”, used very similarly in 22:28 “Do not move the old landmark which your fathers have set”.
The war regulations (chapter 20) stipulate who will be exempt from the obligation to go to battle. In 20:5-8 four such cases are cited. The first is a man “who has not dedicated [or consecrated or inaugurated] his new house” (v. 5 emphasis added), being the verb “chanach” (ch.n.ch, chet, noon, kaf/chaf) which also means to “train” (e.g. Gen. 14:14, Avraham’s trained servants are called “chanee’chim”. See also, Prov. 22:6) as well as “consecrate and habituate”. The second person to be exempt from army service is he “who planted a vineyard and has not begun to use it” (v. 6 emphasis added). The verb here is “chalel” (of the root ch.l.l, chet, lamed, lamed, which we examined at the end of Parashat Yitro, relating to Ex. 20:25) and also means “profane, pollute, defile, begin, bore holes, entrust, release, dance and a dead body” (example of the latter, “chalal,” is found in 21:1). In a typical Hebrew fashion we find here that ‘ends meet’ and come full circle. ‘Profane’, as stated, of the same root (ch.l.l) is also ‘hollow’ (void of real content), but ‘release’ (once again, ch.l.l)2 affords an opportunity for a (new) ‘beginning’ (ch.l.l) and for doing away with profanity. A dead body has certainly been emptied out of its content (soul and spirit), and the dead person is therefore released from obligations, BUT at the same time, as our verb points out, there is also a new beginning here… albeit in another dimension. And so, similar to the tern “chet” - “sin” - into which is built the means for reform (“cha’teh” – “cleansing”), here too, profanity and defilement are couched in a term which provides for a transformation by way of a new beginning. The other two who are exempt from army duty, are he who is betrothed but has not consummated the marriage, and the one who is fearful.
In last week’s Parashat R’eh we discussed the meaning of “male”, being “he who remembers”, and then pointed out the special reference there to those who belong to YHVH as “those who are being remembered” (16:16) – “z’churim”. Surprisingly, the same reference to males occurs here too (20:13), although this time it is applied to “all the men of a city which refuses to make peace” and who are to be “struck”. Thus, these men who are destined to be put to death are no less known and remembered by YHVH, who is indeed “in all and over all” (Eph.4:6)!
Lastly, the Parasha deals with the “decapitated heifer” – “egla arufa” (21:1-9), in connection with the case of an unknown murderer: “And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to an ever-flowing stream, which is not plowed nor sown. And they shall break the heifer's neck there by the stream” (v. 4). The word for the “nape of the neck” is “oref” (such as in “stiff necked” – “k’sheh oref”), hence the verb for “breaking the neck” is “arof”. Although the heifer is killed while the elders pray that their own sin be atoned for, its killing is not a sacrifice or an offering, which is why it is slaughtered in this manner. Thus, its carcass is buried rather than burnt.3 The heifer symbolizes the restitution (atonement) of the blood of the dead person, as he cannot be fully avenged without his murderer being found. Additionally, the shedding of innocent blood defiles both people and land, therefore this occasion renders the opportunity for the elders of the area to “wash their hands off of the matter” and be counted innocent of the blood of the deceased (ref. 21:6, 7). The usage of the “nape of the neck” for the action of decapitating the heifer also alludes to the Hebrew idiom of “turning the neck”, which means to “turn away from” or “reject” (Jeremiah 2:27 for example). In this way, the elders’ action constitutes a declaration that they have rejected and renounced the evil deed which has been committed, also applying it vicariously to the entire people of Yisrael (ref. vs. 8,9) as well as to the land (see 19:10).
1 Davrim with Daat Mikrah Commentary, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 2001.
2 Etymological Dictionary of
Biblical Hebrew, based on the commentaries of Samson Raphael Hirsch, Matityahu
Clark, Feldheim Publishers,