The parshah of Shoftim begins with the commandment that men of justice and enforcers should be placed in every locality which the tribes shall inherit. These judges are to ensure a righteous society, avoiding bribes and court favoritism in their steadfast pursuit of justice. Such behavior will enable the Jews to remain in their land. On the topic of being in the land, the parshah continues with the rules pertinent to planting trees of idol worship. Like such monuments, the trees are forbidden. On the topic of worship, the Torah reminds us that only
unblemished beasts could be used as korbanot, sacrifices. Additionally, anyone found guilty of idolatry is to be stoned at the gates of the city. It is from here that we learn that a Jewish court requires at least two witnesses, who themselves will lead the execution.

Judges could be appointed outside the land of Israel. For it is written in the Ethics of the Fathers, “Do not judge your fellow-man until you have stood in his place.” A court which sits in the land of Israel cannot know the trials and temptations which exist outside, or the difficulties of being loyal to one’s faith in a place of exile. The land of
Israel is a land where “the eyes of the L-rd your G-d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” It is a land of Divine grace. One cannot judge a man by its standards if that man lives outside its protection. So judges had to be drawn from the same environment as their defendants. They had not only to know what he had done; they had to experience for themselves the environment which brought him to it. Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch (the second Chabad Rebbe) was once giving private audiences, interrupted himself for some time . It transpired that a man who had had an audience wanted the Rebbe’s help in setting right a particularly degrading act he had done. The Rebbe later said to one of his close disciples that one must discover some analogous quality in oneself–on however refined a level–before one can help someone to remedy his sin. His interruption of the audiences had been to attempt to find in himself this point from which he could identify with the sinner. It was this principle that lay behind G-d’s command to Moses when the Israelites had made the golden calf: “Go, get thee down, for your people have dealt corruptly.” For at that moment, Moses was inhabiting the spiritual heights of Mt. Sinai, neither eating nor drinking, divorced from the world. The
Israelites were degraded through their sin. But by telling him to “go down” to “your people” G-d created a bond between Moses and the people, on the basis of which Moses was able to plead on their behalf.

The Torah states: “Neither shalt thou set thee up a pillar, which the Lord thy G-d hateth” (ch.16, v.22). Rabbi Hillel Geffen comments that our ancestors used pillars for the service of G-d, and he brings forth the following examples: When Jacob had slept in Beit-El on his way to Lavan, he “took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil on the top of it” (Genesis 28,18). On his return from Padan-Aram, Jacob comes back to Beit-El and again – “Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He spoke with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured out a drink- offering thereon, and poured oil thereon” (Genesis 35, 14). In contrast to this, it is said at the beginning of our portion -“Neither shalt thou set thee up a pillar, which the Lord thy G-d hateth”. The Torah was not satisfied with only determining that making a pillar is forbidden, but also added that it is
hated by G-d! Rabbi Abraham Iben-Ezra explains that the prohibition mentioned here relates only to pillars
being made for idolatrous worship, but a pillar being made for the sanctification of G-d was not banned. Rashi, however, claims that this prohibition relates to every pillar whatsoever, even in order to sacrifice on it to Heaven. Therefore he explains that although “it was pleased to Him in the days of our ancestors, now He hates it”. Why? “Because they (the Canaanites) made it an ordinance of an idolatrous character”. Rashi also explains the
difference between a pillar and an altar: a pillar is one stone made for sacrifice, and this is forbidden, while an “altar of stones and an altar of land He has commanded you to make.”

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim


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