There is a commandment given to Israel that once every 7 years, during the Festival of Sukkot, they should assemble ALL the people to hear the Torah read to them. (Deuteronomy 31:10-12). Chazal (a Hebrew acronym that means, “our sages of blessed memory”) instituted a continuous cycle of reading the Torah. They defined weekly sections so that Jews would be reading and hearing Torah every single week and complete the 5 Books of Moses in a set time. The teachers I learned under taught me to follow the yearly Torah cycle and I discovered that Chabad divides their Torah study into daily aliyot. When the Torah portion is read in its entirety on Shabbat in the synagogue, there are seven sections, seven aliyot. The Chabad tradition is to study one aliyah each day, starting Sunday and going through to Shabbat. One who does this can get a double dose of the same Torah Portion each week.
It’s time to explore Torah Portion Shoftim Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9, aliyah by aliyah.
Aliyah 1: Deuteronomy 16:18-17:13
Deuteronomy 16:18 “You are to appoint judges and officers for all your gates [in the cities] HaShem your G-d is giving you, tribe by tribe; and they are to judge the people with righteous judgment.
Justice is foundational to a healthy society, no wonder HaShem commanded this.
Deuteronomy 16:19 You are not to distort justice or show favoritism, and you are not to accept a bribe, for a gift blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of even the upright.
Lord Acton said “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.”
I believe this insight can be traced back to this verse and the Torah aims to innoculate Israel against the corruption of power.
Deuteronomy 16:20 Justice, only justice, you must pursue; so that you will live and inherit the land HaShem your G-d is giving you.
A Just Creator demands His people be Just in order to continue to live in His midst.
Deuteronomy 16:21 You are not to plant any sort of tree as a sacred pole beside the altar of HaShem your G-d that you will make for yourselves.
Because Justice and morality are arbitrary, from a philosophical perspective, HaShem defines His standards through Torah. Sacred trees may be nice or beneficial near the altar of HaShem, but he doesn’t want them. They are used by pagans for their idolatry and He rejects those practices, because He is holy, or set apart.
Deuteronomy 16:22 Likewise, do not set up a standing-stone; HaShem your G-d hates such things.
Standing-stones are also no good for serving HaShem. Did Jacob set up a standing stone in Luz?
Deuteronomy 17:1 “You are not to sacrifice to HaShem your G-d a cow or sheep that has a defect or anything wrong with it; that would be an abomination to HaShem your G-d.
A sacrifice must be from an unblemished animal, not something less valuable and unwanted.
Deuteronomy 17:2 “If there is found among you, within any of your gates [in any city] that HaShem your G-d gives you, a man or woman who does what HaShem your G-d sees as wicked, transgressing his covenant
Does this only apply to walled cities? What if someone is in an un-walled village?
Deuteronomy 17:3 by going and serving other gods and worshipping them, the sun, the moon, or anything in the sky — something I have forbidden —
Further clarification of how idolatry is forbidden.
Deuteronomy 17:4 and it is told to you, or you hear about it; then you are to investigate the matter diligently. If it is true, if it is confirmed that such detestable things are being done in Isra’el;
The zeal of the self-righteous is checked here by saying that the accusation must be investigated before anything is done to the accused.
Deuteronomy 17:5 then you are to bring the man or woman who has done this wicked thing to your city gates, and stone that man or woman to death.
Is this the first time idolatry has been defined as a capital offense?
Deuteronomy 17:6 The death sentence is to be carried out only if there was testimony from two or three witnesses; he may not be sentenced to death on the testimony of only one witness.
Another check on wanton bloodshed and violence. What if only one witness truthfully saw someone inidolatry? Why does Torah defend the guilty?
Deuteronomy 17:7 The witnesses are to be the first to stone him to death; afterwards, all the people are to stone him. Thus you will put an end to this wickedness among you.
Why must the witnesses be the first to stone the guilty?
Deuteronomy 17:8 “If a case comes before you at your city gate which is too difficult for you to judge, concerning bloodshed, civil suit, personal injury or any other controversial issue; you are to get up, go to the place which HaShem your G-d will choose,
Jethro introduced this concept of tiered courts to Moshe and about 38 years prior to this. The system was seemingly a success.
Deuteronomy 17:9 and appear before the cohanim, who are L’vi’im, and the judge in office at the time. Seek their opinion, and they will render a verdict for you.
This sounds like the cohanim serving in the Mishkan were to be at the highest level of court. Is the High Priest the “judge in office at the time” referred to in this verse?
Deuteronomy 17:10 You will then act according to what they have told you there in that place which HaShem will choose; you are to take care to act according to all their instructions.
Does this count in matters of damages or also interpreting Torah?
Deuteronomy 17:11 In accordance with the Torah they teach you, you are to carry out the judgment they render, not turning aside to the right or the left from the verdict they declare to you.
This seems to affirm that the Levites and Cohanim were to be the expert instructors on specific Torah matters and damages, as well as other civil, legal and other matters.
Deuteronomy 17:12 Anyone presumptuous enough not to pay attention to the cohen appointed there to serve HaShem your G-d or to the judge — that person must die. Thus you will exterminate such wickedness from Isra’el —
Are the cohen and the judge two different people? Is the cohen, a regular cohen and the judge is specifically the High Priest? Or is the judge someone else, say, not a High Priest, perhaps a sage or Torah scholar?
Deuteronomy 17:13 all the people will hear about it and be afraid to continue acting presumptuously.
This is an interesting bit of context for my Lord Acton point above. If there needed to be two witnesses to have an idolator executed, what about a presumptuous person, I assume they would get similar protection. How does that all balance out?
Aliyah 2: Deuteronomy 17:14-20
Deuteronomy 17:15 In that event, you must appoint as king the one whom HaShem your G-d will choose. He must be one of your kinsmen, this king you appoint over you — you are forbidden to appoint a foreigner over you who is not your kinsman.
Is the King of Israel the only ruler chosen by HaShem or are all of them?
Aliyah 3: Deuteronomy 18:1-5
Deuteronomy 18:5 For HaShem your G-d has chosen him from all your tribes to stand and serve in the name of HaShem, him and his sons forever.
It has been said that the Levites and Cohens are no longer designated for this role because there is no longer an earthly Temple and because of the Priesthood of Melchizedek. This verse seems to refute those claims flatly. Also, Isaiah 66 says that in the new Heaven and new Earth that will be created, there will be Levites and Cohens from Israel and the Nations (goyim) who will serve HaShem. I think this is another case where forever means forever.
Aliyah 4: Deuteronomy 18:6-13
Deuteronomy 18:13 You must be wholehearted with HaShem your G-d.
I think that means the parts of your heart that do not align with Him need to be made to align with Him or removed. The previous Torah Portion: Re’eh did speak of circumcision of the heart, so this may be building upon that.
Aliyah 5: Deuteronomy 18:14-19:13
Deuteronomy 18:20 But if a prophet presumptuously speaks a word in my name which I didn’t order him to say, or if he speaks in the name of other gods, then that prophet must die.’
So every prophet needs to be tested and examined to make sure they are legitimate.
Aliyah 6: Deuteronomy 19:14-20:9
Deuteronomy 20:8 “The officials will then add to what they have said to the soldiers: ‘Is there a man here who is afraid and fainthearted? He should go back home; otherwise his fear may demoralize his comrades as well.’
I find it interesting that the structure of this prescription makes it so that the faint-hearted man might be able to slip away with the other 3 men. His shame and guilt might be mitigated by leaving with this group.
Aliyah 7: Deuteronomy 20:10-21:9
Deuteronomy 21:8 HaShem, forgive your people Isra’el, whom you redeemed; do not allow innocent blood to be shed among your people Isra’el.’ And they will be forgiven this bloodshed.
I find it curious that the leaders of the town closest to this murder victim are held responsible for their death. That is what scripture says, but I don’t get it or see how that is so. How where they responsible for someone else’s actions?
Before I go, I want to answer questions raised at the beginning of this session. These are my opinions, based on my time studying under various teachers and while I try to set aside any commentaries while examining each aliyah, I will allow myself to bring some back in for this section. I will disclose where I am getting these ideas where relevant.
- Did Jacob set up a standing stone in Luz? [DEU 16:22]
- Does idolatry only count in walled cities? [DEU 17:2]
- Does Torah defend the guilty? [DEU 17:6]
That concludes my journey through Shoftim for the year 5782.
I hope these words have been a blessing to you.
May our Heavenly Father give you peace and joy.
This is Matthew and I am Walking In Liberty.
Why the Stones and Oil? – A teaching that may clarify this “standing-stone” issue with Jacob.