Nitsavim: The hardest quest

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess. (Devarim 11-16

We’ve conjured up the stuff of dreams:

we’ve walked in space and seen the heavens
radiant with galaxies of stars,

we’ve plumbed the depths beneath the waves,
and walked the ocean floor,

we’ve charted lands beyond the sea, and
marveled at the glory of Your world, yet

we struggle with the hardest quest –
to walk the path illumined by Your light.

Parashat Nitsavim contains Moses’ third discourse which he imparts to the people as he approaches his own death. It is a summons to ratify the covenant between God and the people, and is always read close to Rosh Hashanah, which is a time for taking stock of our commitment to the covenant with God.

In a commentary on the parasha from 2014,, Professor Arnold Eisen addresses this discourse. He says, “It would be difficult to think of a Torah portion that speaks with greater urgency than this one. The Israelites are about to cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Moses is about to die, at God’s command, on the wilderness side of the river. He needs to sum up the teaching to which he has devoted his life in a manner that is persuasive, indeed unforgettable, for the people will not get to hear from him directly again, and the teaching is not meant for his generation alone. The Torah wants to speak to Children of Israel in every time and place, in a way that leads them — leads us — to carry forward the project that Moses has directed. It succeeds in that effort: we too are stirred by Moses’s language, compelled by his vision, moved to undertake responsibility for his Torah.” Professor Eisen notes that four passages in Parashat Nitsavim seem to him especially crucial to Moses’s teaching and our response.
First, the opening words are addressed to the entire community. Absolutely everyone is included, both from that time and throughout all coming generations. Implicit is the assurance that the Torah will be relevant in every time and place.
Secondly, Moses says that “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, while revealed things belong to us and our children forever, to do all the things/words of this Torah.” (Devarim 29:29). Prof Eisen comments, “We must resign ourselves to the fact that we will never know much of what we would dearly like to know. But — the Torah insists — we do know enough to live in this world, to do good, to make things better. We have God’s Torah and the tradition built upon it over the generations. We have the promise of God’s justice and compassion, and are occasionally vouchsafed moments in God’s presence. We have abundant gifts of human culture and society: arts and sciences, experience and wisdom…”
He continues, “As if in response to the protest, “But it is so hard! Hard to know what is right, and harder still to do it!,” Moses attempts reassurance. When the people stray from the path, God will “take you back in love” ([Devarim] 30:3). The task he sets for them is not beyond their capabilities. “This Instruction [mitzvah] which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” It is not in the heavens, or beyond the sea. “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.” ([Devarim] 30:11–14). Finally, Moses emphasizes that although God’s mitzvot – commandments may not be easy to keep, they are within our reach. We are to bring them into every aspect of our daily life. Moses seems to be saying that the “word” is very close to us otherwise we would not be able to access it. He encourages the people to walk in the way of Torah.

In a commentary on the parasha from 2011,, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen too addresses this second-to-last speech by Moses to the people, before he dies and they enter the land. Rabbi Cohen notes that as Moses departs, his role as mediator is taken away also. Rabbi Cohen says, “It is no longer necessary for somebody to go up to heaven (not once, but twice) to bring the Torah down. It is no longer necessary for there to be one person who mediates the word of God for the people. “It is in your mouth, and in your heart to fulfill.”
He notes that a frequently-cited Talmudic tradition understands this verse to mean that once the Torah was revealed at Sinai, it was transferred from the heavenly realm to the human one, and thus, interpreting and understanding it became the responsibility of humans. He adds, “God is no longer a voice in the debate. “It is in your mouth, and in your heart to fulfill.”
Rabbi Cohen continues that there is another view that appears in the Midrash (Mechilta deRabbi Ishmael, Bachodesh 9) and holds that “Israel merited prophecy because they refused to hear the voice of God directly at Sinai, and begged Moses to be the intermediary.” (Shemot 20:19). When Moses retells the story of the Revelation at Sinai he adds God’s response to the people’s request not to hear God’s voice. “The Lord heard the plea that you made to me and the Lord said to me, I have heard the plea that this people made to you ; they did well to speak thus.” (Devarim 5:25) The Midrash sees this as an endorsement of having a mediator. However, Rabbi Cohen suggests that Moses’ statement in this week’s portion, does not seem to clarify the question of approval or disapproval of mediation. He says, “The point of Moses’ statement is that you cannot rely on the fact that there might be somebody else to get the Torah and teach it to you, or for you. You must get it, study it and teach it. There is no longer an excuse. The fear that Israel had at Sinai of hearing the voice of God, cannot now be avoided – for the voice of God is what happens when Torah is studied. God is in the space between the student and her text, between teacher and student, between student and study partner.
“When Moses finishes speaking, he immediately writes “the words of this Torah on a scroll, in their entirety.” He then entrusts them to the Levites to carry with the Ark of the Covenant. The Torah is now text, and inert unless studied. This is the obligation of freedom, and the criteria for membership in the community: being involved in the ongoing dialogue of Torah study. For those who take up the challenge – it is theirs; for those who don’t-it remains beyond the ocean and above the Heavens.”
Rabbi Cohen concludes with a thought by the Sefat Emet, who teaches that Moses broke the tablets of stone only when he saw the golden calf, as he realised that the people were not yet ready to receive them. Had they done so then, they would have worshiped the tablets like an idol. So Rabbi Cohen suggests “When Torah is static it is an idol: inaccessible, beyond the heavens, and for all intents and purposes, mute. When Torah is studied, and therefore dynamic, it is close at hand and alive. It is the word of God.”

In her book The Five Books of Miriam, a Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, Dr Ellen Frankel relates the Yiddish folklore story of Skotsl. Dr Frankl reminds us that when Moses is preparing to die, he assures the people that the Torah is neither in the heavens nor across the sea but “very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart. ([Devarim] 30:14). She asks “Is that still true? For isn’t it also written “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us” (30:12)? What are we supposed to do now that we no longer have a superhuman champion like Moses to intercede with God on our behalf?”
And she answers, “Once upon a time, there lived in Russia a community of women who reached just such a point of despair when the Russian army came and marched off all their men. Because the women themselves had no direct access to the Torah, neither to its words nor to the performance of many of its mitzvot , their Jewish lives came to a standstill. There were no men to perform a bris (ritual circumcision), slaughter kosher meat, lead prayers, read from the Torah, or conduct a funeral. Finally, a young woman, named Skotsl, suggested that they build a human ladder to heaven and ask God what to do. Because it was her idea, Skotsl was elected to be their spokeswoman.
“But just as Skotsl reached the top of the wobbling tower, the woman at the bottom sneezed, and the whole pillar of women collapsed. After they had picked themselves up and made sure no bones were broken, they looked around for Skotsl – but she was nowhere to be found. And since that day she has never been seen again. Did she reach heaven and become stranded there? Or did she fall to earth somewhere so distant that she could not find her sway back home? Or did she die in the fall?
“To this day, when some Jewish women greet each other, they announce, “Skotsl kumt!” – hoping that at last Skotsl has returned with answers from heaven and beyond the sea.”

Ki Tavo: Forty years to understand

Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. I led you through the wilderness forty years – the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet; you had no bread to eat and no wine or other intoxicant to drink — that you might know that I the Lord am your God. (Devarim 29:3-5)

No instant insights
despite the wonders on the way.

Forty years from revelation
to understanding.

Forty years to pare the husk
and find the heart within.

In a talk* that he gave at the Se’udah Shelishit (third Sabbath meal) on Shabbat Parashat Ki Tavo in 1996,, Rabbi Yehudah Amital (1924 – 2010) cites the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 5b) which recalls the incident in which the people grumbled against God and Moses that there was no bread and water in the wilderness and that they had come to loathe the miserable food… (B’midbar 21:5). Yet the Gemara says that Moses only reminds the Israelites of this incident some forty years later. We read there “As it is said, ‘And I have led you forty years in the wilderness . . . but the Lord did not give you a heart to know, and eyes to see and ears to hear, until today.’ [the quotation in the Gemara actually changes the order of the verses cf the Torah’s text itself as cited above)]. Said Raba: From this you can learn that it may take one forty years to know the mind of one’s master.” Rav Amital wonders what the Gemara is teaching us. He asks, “Does it really take four decades to learn a lesson?”
In order to address this, he brings the Talmudic analogy (Chagiga 15a) of toch – the meaning, value, or truth that lies at the heart or core of a system, and its kelipah – the shell or husk that surrounds it, and which can take many forms. Rav Amital notes that Chasidic thought differentiates between “a kelipah of desire, which one may penetrate to reveal the truth, and a kelipah of falsehood, which has no toch at its core. In such a case, he says, the shell is truly empty.”
Rabbi Amital, speaking twenty years ago, addresses a challenge no less pressing today, which he describes as a new culture of falsehood. He says, “Now it is the mantra of the West which rules, that image is everything, that only kelipah counts. Within this culture of hidden lies, falsehood is attractively packaged and marketed. Whether it is commercial advertisement or political propaganda, modern media present us with enchanting and beautiful externals, the connection between them and the internal value of the product or person being negligible.  There are even those who attempt to sell the toch of Judaism in the same way, by exhibiting all of its ostensibly desirable and appealing elements, instead of delving into its content and depth.”
Rav Amital brings a strange story from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Chagigah 2:2) which tells of two righteous men, one of whom dies and whose spirit then appears to his friend and describes the afterlife. Among other things, he tells him of a woman there, who has the bizarre name of Miriam-Daughter-of-Onion-Leaves, in whose ear the hinge of the gate of Gehinom [hell] revolves! The friend learns that she earned this punishment because of her false piety – she fasted a lot and took great pains to publicize it, or, according to another opinion, she exaggerated it.  However, the deceased informant adds that Miriam will be replaced in her uncomfortable position by none other than Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, who was the Nasi – the President of the Sanhedrin,** who when he dies, will take her place! The amazed friend wonders what could have been the sin of the Nasi? He learns that prior to becoming Nasi, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach undertook to use his position to eradicate sorcery, but did not kept his resolution once he reached office. The friend immediately visits R’ Shimon ben Shetach, who resolves to fulfill his promise, but is awestruck, because he hadn’t ever actually spoken of his intention aloud, having only committed in his own heart to do so!
Rav Amital asks what we learn from this passage. He teaches that Miriam-Daughter-of-Onion-Leaves’ curious name gives us the clue. He notes the marked difference between the onion and other vegetables: while other vegetables have a kelipah and a toch, the onion has only kelipah; after each layer of peel is shed, there is another layer of peel. The onion thus symbolises things which have only an exterior, but no core. This passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi comes to denounce that which has no inner truth or value, that which merely consists of a possibly attractive but actually empty husk. Miriam-Daughter-of-Onion-Leaves puts on a show of fasting, appearing to be pious, but really seeks public approbation. R’ Shimon ben Shetach lets himself believe that he wants the high office of Nasi in order to eradicate paganism, but he does not fulfill the promise, even though he made it only to himself.
Rav Amital adds, “Judaism demands that, just as one should not write a check unless he has funds to cover it in the bank, one must also have “coverage” for all his assertions, promises and even intentions. The Torah despises facades and hypocrisy.  We must inspect our actions, making sure that they validate our words and thoughts…”
He concludes, “With this in mind, we can return to the Gemara in Avodah Zarah cited above. The template of Moses in the desert shows us that it is insufficient to memorize and declaim the rabbi’s words verbatim, being satisfied with the way they appear at first glance, on a kelipah level. Instead, we must understand them well and plumb their depths, exposing the toch.  This requires a great deal of time, but it is the only way to ensure that at our core, we are people of truth.”

After the number seven, forty is the most frequently-occurring number in the Tanach, and it often seems indicative of some sort of transition or turning point (forty days of the Flood, of Moses fasting on Mount Chorev, forty days granted to Ninevah to repent, forty days of purification following the birth of a baby boy (double that amount for a baby girl); forty years was the age at which both Isaac and Esau were married, that Calev was sent to spy out the land, forty years of the Children of Israel’s sojourn in the desert,while several judges and kings ruled each for forty years.)
In the Talmud, we learn that a new level of understanding is attained at the age of forty – “ben arba’im le-binah,” (Pirkei Avot 5:26). Tradition tells us of three great Rabbis – Hillel, Yochanan ben Zakkai and Akiva who embarked upon their rabbinical studies when they were forty years old.
Forty is also paralleled in the period between the first day of Elul, when we begin to blow the Shofar to prepare for Rosh Hashana, until Yom Kippur, the end of the period of repentance. These 40 days are considered a meaningful period for striving to reach a deeper level of understanding of what is required of us.

*Rav Amital’s talk was summarized by Matan Glidai and translated by Yoseif Bloch.
**The Great Sanhedrin, similar to a Supreme Court, was made up of a Nasi (President), who functioned as head or representing president, but was not a member of the court, an Av Beit Din (the chief of the court), and sixty-nine general members.

Ki Tetzei: Lost and saved

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must surely return it to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you may not hide yourself. (Devarim 22: 1-3)

All that we’ve misplaced
from last year until this:
the faith that Your design is good;
our hopeful resolutions to do better;
our connections with each other
and with You

are safeguarded, in “lost and found.”
You don’t need signs to know they’re ours.
You hold our vision, undespairing,
until we come to claim it.

In a commentary on Ki Teitzei from 2001, Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun notes that amid the plethora of laws concentrated in this parasha [more than in any other parasha] we find the following law with which, traditionally, countless students have entered the complex world of Talmud study: If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must surely return it to your fellow (Devarim 22:1). The Talmud (in Bava Metzia) expounds upon the laws of returning lost property, hashavat aveidah. Rabbi Eichler Berkun ponders why this subject was chosen by early Jewish teachers as an opening into serious religious learning.
She observes that we read this parasha in the month of Elul, when our thoughts are turning towards preparing for the Yamim Nora’im – the High Holidays. She suggests that there is a connection between the laws of lost property and the process of repentance. She notes the use of the same words for these two concepts. With regard to lost property the Torah teaches, hashev te’shiveim – literally “return, you shall return [lost property].” During the month of Elul, the over-riding theme is of repentance, teshuvah which means returning – to God. So Rabbi Eichler Berkun wonders how the laws of returning lost property inform us about the “spiritual discipline of repentance”? She notes that we learn in the Talmud that we are only responsible for returning a lost article that bears an identifying mark. So if we find coins or money bills on a street, we may keep them, as we have no chance of finding the owner, who in any event will not have any expectations of being located (he is considered to have reached a stage of ye’ush – despair – of receiving his money back). However, the Talmud also mandates that if we find something with a siman – a “sign” which identifies the owner, then we are obliged to make every effort to find him and return his property. He too, will not have despaired since the object is identifiably his. Moreover, we are enjoined to expand our efforts beyond obvious markings, but to consider where the object was found in an attempt to find the owner.
Rabbi Eichler Berkun says “Similarly, during this month leading up to the Yamim Noraim, we are called upon to look for the simanim, the “signs” that we have hurt someone in the past. We must search our souls for both the obvious and the subtle indications that obligate us to engage in teshuvah with those around us. If we wait too long to return, our loved ones may despair of ever finding a renewed relationship with us. As we make amends with all of those whom we have wronged in the past year, we return something which was lost to them. Perhaps we must return a family member’s sense of dignity. Perhaps we must give back our neighbor’s sense of self worth. Perhaps we must bring back our child’s sense of independence, our parent’s sense of honor, or our friend’s sense of trust.” She adds that in addition to truly seeking out ways to return something that was lost, or to repent for a misdeed, the Torah emphasises the need to keep on trying to do so. She cites the Mishnah: If one returned [an animal] and it ran away, and he returned it again and it ran away, even [if this happens] four or five times, he is still obligated to return it [yet again], for it is stated [in the Torah]: hashev t’shiveim, “return, you shall return them…” [Bava Metzia 27a]. She notes that double emphasis of the verb “to return” in the Torah verse is a reminder to “repeatedly and diligently” return lost property. She compares this to the teaching of the Rambam (1135-1204) in his work Hilchot Teshuvah – Laws of Repentance, that if one asks another for forgiveness and is rejected, one is obligated to return a second and even a third time in an attempt to attain forgiveness. She says, “Teshuvah, like finding the original owner of a lost article, is certainly a challenging and painstaking process.”
Rabbi Eichler Berkun mentions the Stone of Claims from Temple times, as depicted in Bava Metzia 28b: “Our Rabbis taught: There was a Stone of Claims in Jerusalem: whoever lost an article repaired thither, and whoever found an article did likewise. The latter stood and proclaimed, and the former submitted his identification marks and received it back.” She says that this transaction of restoring lost property would occur during the festival seasons when the people gathered to celebrate at the Temple in Jerusalem. She says “Imagine how much easier it would be, nowadays, to return lost property at one universally recognized place and time. In the case of teshuvah as well, the Temple offered a specific method for gaining atonement. The sacrificial system and the priestly rites enabled a person to achieve repentance each year. However, as Maimonides explains: At present, when the Temple does not exist and there is no altar of atonement, there remains nothing else aside from teshuvah (Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:3). In the post–Temple era, Maimonides is telling us, we have no means of returning to God and to those whom we love other than the hard work of personal introspection, prayer, and earnest attempts to ask for forgiveness.”
Rabbi Eichler Berkun suggests that the Temple represents God’s presence among the people. She says, “Like the owner of a lost article, who could meet us at the “claimant’s stone” in Jerusalem, God would meet us in the Holy Temple as we returned each year to offer sacrifices. Today, we strive to recreate that sense of God’s immediate presence in our lives through our rituals, prayers, and studies.” She adds that the Yamim Nora’im represent our “claimant’s stone” where we return to God and each other. She concludes, “The laws of lost property in this week’s parashah speak to the fundamental experience of what it means to be a Jew. Jewish educators have trained their students first in the ethic of returning lost property in order to shape the moral and spiritual instincts of these Jewish souls. May our reflections upon these laws of hashavat aveidah serve as an intellectual and spiritual first step towards the transformative process of teshuvah.

In a further commentary on the parasha from 2010,, Rabbi Daniel Nevins reviews the very detailed system the rabbis developed to determine the level of responsibility a finder has to restore lost property. He notes, however, that rabbinic sensitivity also encompassed the psychological and social context. Thus, if returning lost property would engender too high a social or financial cost, the finder would not be expected to do so. He also mentions that, mindful of human frailty, the Torah enjoins us to restore lost property to our enemies as well as our friends. Thus, he suggests “I like to think that they were concerned not only with taming the petty instincts of a person who finds lost property, but also with restoring good relations between people who had been enemies. In this sense, the “lost possession” is friendship, and the commandment is to turn an enemy back into a brother.”
Rabbi Nevins also perceives the concept of “lost property” as an allegory. He asks “What is the most valuable property of the Jewish people? Is it not the Torah itself, which is called “the inheritance of Jacob’s congregation” (Deut. 33:5)?” He continues, “The Torah, which belongs to all of us, is nevertheless a lost inheritance for most Jews. An ancient story about Rabbi Yannai makes this point — if you meet a Jew who knows nothing of the tradition, do not mock him, but become his teacher (Vayikra Rabba 9:3). The Hasidic author Sefat Emet said that every day a heavenly voice announces that a valuable lost object — the Torah — has been found and is waiting to be claimed (Ki Tetzei for 5661). He finds a nice hint of this in the verse “until your brother comes to seek it (drosh).” On Shabbat, the Jewish soul remembers that it is missing something, and it goes to seek (drosh) the Torah and study it (drash).”
So Rabbi Nevins believes that this is the ultimate mission of every teacher and student of Torah – to restore this “lost property” the Torah, to its rightful owners. He concludes “The Jewish People is well familiar with popular culture, but the vast majority of our people are clueless about their lost treasure. Our duty is to announce the clues — the simanim — that mark this possession as valuable. Our job is to show our fellow Jews that the Torah does not belong to some scholarly elite, but that it is theirs to enjoy, to learn from, and to reclaim.”

And finally, in a commentary on Ki Tetzei from 2007,, Reb Mimi Feigelson says that if in the time leading up to Pesach, we are engaged in physical housecleaning, in Elul, we are engaged in spiritual housecleaning. She too notes that the Chasidic masters view the laws of restoring lost property in a more mystical manner. Thus, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) deduces that the meaning of “every lost thing of your brother’s which he has lost” refers directly to the spiritual realm. He addresses the “spiritual objects” whose losses we sustain throughout our lives. Reb Mimi expands, “When we lose our love for a person that we once indeed loved deeply; when remembering how there was a time where our belief in God, humanity, or a sustaining philosophy that held us are now lost from us; when words of the siddur (prayer book) that once felt like ‘home’ have lost their meaning and significance – in these moments, who is the finder of such losses in our life?”
She answers that for Rebbe Nachman the answer is clear – the Ribbono Shel Olam (the Master of the World) – He is the finder of such losses. She continues “And He will hold on to it for us until we are ready to reclaim it and bring it back into our direct possession. We may need time to work through a relationship or a theological challenge. That is not a problem in Rebbe Nachman’s interpretation. God’s time is infinite, and as long as we hold on to the desire to return to the plain that we stood on, then it is only lost to us, but not to its own existence. And our Creator will hold on to it, in faith, trust and love till we come to claim it.”
Reb Mimi submits a further step, based on Rebbe Nachman’s teaching “Can we be this ‘spiritual finder’ for each other? Can we hold on to each other’s greatness and promise, in those moments when one of us has lost their vision? Can we help each other reclaim that which was dear to our heart and soul? While journeying through this month of Elul and cleaning out the rooms of our heart and soul, can we designate one corner as a ‘lost and found’ for our dear ones to come and claim that which they have lost, and we in love and faith have been holding on to for them?”

Devarim: Sought: Ideal Leaders

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes…and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue…
If…you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” …he shall not keep many horses…and he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left…(Devarim 16:18-20, 17:14-20)

Let them be clear of claims of corruption,
reputations unsullied by charges of graft.

Let them be honest in all of their dealings,
and also be humble and willing to learn.

Let them not have consorted with numerous partners;
let their hands not be brimming with ill-gotten gains.

Let the words of the prophets resound in their ears;
let them wrestle profoundly with moral concerns.

We’re searching for leaders of crystal transparency
through whom the light of the Lord will shine forth;

who will heed the command that echoes in darkness
“Justice, justice you shall pursue!”

In a commentary on Parashat Shofetim from 2015,, Professor Shuly Rubin Schwartz notes that the 2016 US presidential election primary season was launched with more than two dozen potential candidates. She points out that observing the ways in which they advocated for public support lent itself to focusing not only on each candidate, but also on which leadership qualities we both look for and reject in our elected officials.
Prof Rubin Schwartz observes that Parashat Shofetim examines a variety of leaders, including judges, officers, priests, kings and military leaders. She says that here we find “insights on the leadership qualities the Torah deems essential to the establishment and sustenance of a just society, qualities applicable not only to elected officials today but to anyone in a position of authority or responsibility over others. In this parashah devoted to the central theme of “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof,” [“Justice, Justice shall you pursue,”] (Deut. 16:20) the Torah teaches that the social order will thrive only when all leaders are attuned to upholding justice. A straightforward goal, but the parashah acknowledges that the reality is inevitably more complicated. Even the most inspiring leaders will struggle, and the parashah opens by exhorting leaders not to succumb to all-too-human impulses to play favorites or take bribes. (Deut. 16:19).”

In a commentary from 2014 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the parasha as “the classic source of the three types of leadership in Judaism, called by the sages the “three crowns”: of priesthood, kingship and Torah.” (Mishnah Avot 4:13. Maimonides, Talmud Torah, 3:1). He continues, “Power, in the human arena, is to be divided and distributed, not concentrated in a single person or office. So, in biblical Israel, there were kings, priests and prophets. Kings had secular or governmental power. Priests were the leaders in the religious domain, presiding over the service in the Temple and other rites, and giving rulings on matters to do with holiness and purity. Prophets were mandated by God to be critical of the corruptions of power and to recall the people to their religious vocation whenever they drifted from it.
“Our parsha deals with all three roles.” Rabbi Sacks notes that with regard to the kingship, the Torah is very clear on what the king may not do: acquire great numbers of horses, take many wives and amass great riches. (Devarim 17: 16-17) And he adds that as we learn, later on in the Bible, even the wisest of kings, King Solomon himself, succumbed to these temptations.
He adds that “consistent with the fundamental Judaic idea that leadership is service, not dominion or power or status or superiority, the king is commanded to be humble: he must constantly read the Torah “so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God … and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites” (17: 19-20). It is not easy to be humble when everyone is bowing down before you and when you have the power of life and death over your subjects.”
Rabbi Sacks mentions the ambivalence (reflected from the Torah itself) among the commentators regarding whether the monarchy was a positive institution or not, but notes that there was one extremely significant aspect of royalty – that the king is mandated to study continually. He adds that Joshua, who succeeded Moses as leader, is enjoined in very similar words “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8)
So Rabbi Sacks concludes “Though few of us are destined to be kings, presidents or prime ministers, there is a general principle at stake. Leaders learn. They read. They study. They take time to familiarise themselves with the world of ideas. Only thus do they gain the perspective to be able to see further and clearer than others. To be a Jewish leader means spending time to study both Torah and chokhmah: chokhmah to understand the world as it is, Torah to understand the world as it ought to be.
Leaders should never stop learning. That is how they grow and teach others to grow with them.”

In a further commentary from 2016, Rabbi Sacks expands on the theme of the Divine mandate addressed to the king, to remain humble. He says “Great leaders have many qualities, but humility is usually not one of them. With rare exceptions they tend to be ambitious, with a high measure of self regard. They expect to be obeyed, honoured, respected, even feared…”
So he suggests that this instruction to the king is surprising and powerful. The Torah, he notes, is speaking about a king, in ancient times, when kings commanded absolute power. Rabbi Sacks says, “If a king, whom all are bound to honour, is commanded to be humble – “not feel superior to his brethren” – how much more so the rest of us…”
Rabbi Sacks continues “This is a clear example of how spirituality makes a difference to the way we act, feel and think. Believing that there is a God in whose presence we stand means that we are not the centre of our world. God is.” He cites research published in 2014 by the Harvard Business Review that showed that “The best leaders are humble leaders.”* He says that such leaders “learn from criticism. They are confident enough to empower others and praise their contributions. They take personal risks for the sake of the greater good. They inspire loyalty and strong team spirit.”

And finally, in a commentary on Shofetim from 2005,, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch addresses the responsibility that is so often shirked by those who hold public office. He considers the horrors wrought by Hurricane Katrina, which left devastation in its wake and engendered great suffering, while the federal government had been unprepared for a disaster that was just waiting to occur. He says “In the months ahead, investigative commissions without number will seek to plot missteps, assign blame, and propose initiatives. But how will politicians, for whom winning is everything, cleanse themselves collectively of guilt where no one is directly culpable? How do we spiritually atone for the stain left on our body politic by Katrina’s assault?
“This week’s parashah, which takes up the contours of good governance, among other subjects, actually addresses the issue with an exotic proposal.” He then describes the ritual of the beheaded heifer (which I addressed in a post in 2015 This ritual was prescribed for the leaders of a community to confess and atone for an unsolved, unpunished murder that happened on their “watch”. Rabbi Schorsch notes “the intent of the confession is to exonerate the elders of facilitating the travesty by their indifference.” He continues, “I have often wondered if office holders should not be made to undergo a rite of purification when the public suspects their culpability. Not an investigation in which they exercise their right to defend their actions, but a sacred setting in which they might give voice to their feelings of remorse and sense of fallibility. Their oath of office, taken on a Bible, implies a duty to God as well as society. An occasional confession in the house of worship of their choice might even reinforce the sanctity of their public trust. It certainly would give authority a more human face.”
He concludes, “…the ideal remains valid even in contemporary America. Office holders are accountable to God as well as to their constituencies, otherwise they would not swear on Scripture. And for God, humility has always been one of the qualifications of leadership. Moses looms as the greatest of ancient Israel’s leaders because in part at least he was also the humblest of men (Numbers 12:3).”

*Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib, ‘The Best Leaders are Humble Leaders’, Harvard Business Review, 12 May 2014.

Re’eh: Accord

You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. (Devarim 14:1)

Do not carve yourselves up
into pure and impure,
men and women,
left and right,
rich and poor,
gay and straight,
migrants, citizens,
them and us.

Do not slash the body
that houses every being,
do not split the skin
that girds you all, for
underneath it, black or white,
each one is My child.

In Parashat Re’eh, we read the commandment “You are children of the Lord your God. You shall not gash yourselves (lo titgodedu) or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. The literal meaning of this verse prohibits pagan mourning customs that include self-mutilating practices similar to those described in Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Ba’al (1 Kings 18:28). However, the Rabbis of the Talmud in Yevamot 13b re-interpret the verse in a way that has lost none of its relevance today. They suggest that the word titgodedu is etymologically related to the word agudah meaning group. They compare this verse with that in Psalms 94:21 which contains the word yagodu, meaning “they group together (against the soul of the righteous).” So the Rabbis derive that lo titgodedu is actually an exhortation meaning “Do not divide up into rival factions (agudot agudot).”
Tellingly, this injunction is preceded by the reminder “You are children of the Lord your God.
In the twentieth century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972) stands out as a giant of “building bridges” both within the Jewish community as well as in pioneering interfaith dialogue. In an interview in On Being with Krista Tippett, on the “Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua Heschel”, Professor Arnold Eisen recalls that in 1953 Rabbi Heschel addressed the Assemblage of Reform Rabbis and later in the same month, he spoke to the Conservative rabbis. (He told the former that they needed to pay more attention to Jewish law which Reform Judaism had rejected, and to the latter he told that they paid too much attention to law and needed to address Jewish spirituality.)

In an article on Rabbi Heschel, Dr Reuven Kimelman summarises, “Heschel’s fulfilled desire to be connected with … diverse constituencies is reflected in the fact that over thirty national organizations, Jewish and otherwise, sponsored the sheloshim in his honor. His roots in Judaism reached so deep that they penetrated that substratum of life which nourishes all mankind. Heschel’s ability to relate to so many people on their various levels flowed from his conviction that man’s grandeur surpasses his ideologies. His ability to deal with the thought and attitudes of so many religious communities issued from a certitude that God transcends His theologies.”

With regard to Rabbi Heschel’s interfaith activity, Professor Eisen comments “Heschel was a mystic. And you’ll find a lot of mystics throughout the ages — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu — who believe they have an experience of God that goes beyond language, that goes beyond culture, that proves to them the unity of the Divine and then they understand various religious traditions as ways, as it were, of putting this experience into words. And the words always fall short. And one of the things that enabled Heschel to be so open to people of other faiths and to feel real kinship with them was this fundamental mysticism, this sense that the experience of God goes beyond any individual tradition, is greater than any individual tradition, as it were, encompasses all of them.
“And then there was the personal experience, and here was the man who was able to see in other human beings that he met, for example, the Pope and the cardinals that he met in encounters through Vatican II, Martin Luther King, Reinhold Niebuhr. He encountered other people of faith and I think was open enough to see in them depths of religious, as it were, belonging. That they too live in the presence of God and therefore they have kinship with him. And these encounters reinforce one another and grow in him this sense of a mystery beyond any tradition’s capacity to fully understand it.
“So there’s Heschel out there in the world marching in Selma sure that those people marching with him are no less children of God, full of insight into God, than he is. This is rare in a contemporary world. Even with all of our talk about pluralism and all of our religious dialogue, the deep conviction that we need to be open to others because we have something important to learn from them. This remains rare. And it’s one of the things that Heschel had to teach that I’m most grateful for.”