Shoftim 2015

It’s my pleasure to begin our Torah study with a portion, Shoftim, that emphasizes the pursuit of justice. From kings to commoners, from judges to miscreants, all Israelites must abide by a sense of fairness.

Here are some texts from this week’s Torah portion, with commentary and topics for you to discuss:

Text #1: “If a Levite would go, from any of the settlements throughout Israel where he has been residing, to the place that the Lord has chosen, he may do so whenever he pleases. He may serve in the name of the Lord his God like all his fellow Levites who are there in attendance before the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 18:6-7

Commentary: “From where do we know that all the watches share equally in the sacrifices of the Festival? Scripture says, ‘He may do so whenever he pleases … he may serve’.” – BT Sukkah 55b

Questions: The Talmudic tractate of Sukkah seems to say that the relative freedom given to the Levite will result in an equal share in the responsibilities over the sacrificial system, regardless how much an individual Levite actually contributed. Likewise, successful organizations often find ways to enable all of their employees/volunteers, from the top to the bottom, feel an equal sense of pride in the organization’s success. What are some ways to accomplish this? What can we do to enable our organizations to instill a widespread sense of ownership of the success of the collective?

*******

Text #2: “You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 18:13

Commentary: “Yahweh demands that Israel ‘be wholehearted with the Lord’.” The expression is very typical of the religious thought of Israel which received its standards far less from ideas than certain conditions of fellowship. It is not moral and religious ‘perfection’ which is demanded of Israel, but rather an undivided commitment, without any reinsurance by consulting strange gods, spirits of the dead, etc., to the conditions of fellowship with Yahweh.” – Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy

Questions: This comment on the Israelites’ need to be wholehearted appears in a section warning about the risks in trusting those who practice sorcery or witchcraft. What does it mean to feel something with our whole hearts? How do we recognize those moments? Do you agree with von Rad’s belief that wholeheartedness does not mean perfection, but rather perfect intention? Can someone who succumbs to the allure of idolatry nevertheless be described as having perfect intention?

*******

Text #3: “When the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as He swore to your fathers, and gives you all the land that He promised to give your fathers …” – Deuteronomy 19:8

Commentary: “The third Temple which will be built in the future … will not be subject to strife and hostility from our neighbors. … God will expand the borders of our country as He has promised.” – Shelah

Questions: Given today’s political environment, the building of a third Temple might be unthinkable, at least for the immediate future. How can we reconcile Judaism’s traditional hope for redemption (in which a third Temple is clearly included) with making practical choices for Israel’s immediate future? Can the two coexist?

*******

Emanu-El Happenings: I look forward to joining both my congregants and members of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim at our Shared Shabbat service. Tonight, we meet at KKBE (90 Hasell St., Charleston) at 8:00PM, and tomorrow morning, we’ll gather at Synagogue Emanu-El, with Danish & D’rash at 9:00AM and services starting at 9:30AM. This is the fifth annual Shared Shabbat, and I feel so privileged to live in a community where different synagogues can learn and worship together.

******

The Big Inning at the End: Since our portion centers around justice, I thought it fitting to recall a story that Joe McCarthy, a Hall of Fame baseball manager, would tell about umpires – those moral arbiters everyone loves to hate.

McCarthy said he had a recurring dream in which he died and went to heaven, and was commanded by God to form a baseball team. He looked around him and saw Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Honus Wagner, and so many of the other legendary ballplayers from the past. Just then, McCarthy received a phone call from the Devil, challenging him to a game.

“But you don’t stand a chance,” McCarthy said, “I have all the players!”

“I know,” replied the Devil, “but I have all the umpires.”

Shabbat Shalom!