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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Shoftim

Judges and officers shall you appoint in your cities. (16:18)

The Zohar Ha'Kadosh states that the concept of "judges and officers" applies to the individual as much as it does to the nation. In order to triumph over the yetzer hora, evil inclination, one must make use of all his G-d -given faculties. Horav Ze'ev Weinberger, Shlita, explains that shofet, judge, and shoter, officer, are analogies for two powers/abilities which are inherent in man. The shofet adjudicates with logic. His decision is rendered after careful deliberation and cogent appreciation of the entire circumstances. The shoter executes the judge's decision. He does not involve his cognitive abilities in carrying out the law. His job is not to think, but to act.

A person should reign over himself in the same manner. On the one hand, he should utilize the element of shofet, thinking, understanding. He should realize the difference between good and bad, using his seichal, common sense, to decide to do the correct thing. In certain circumstances, however, one must do as he is told regardless of his lack of understanding. One acts in accordance with the Torah, even if his logic does not comprehend the reason for the law. "Shoftim v'shotrim," hand in hand, these two forces work to overcome the blandishments of the yetzer hora.

Horav Weinberger comments that this idea is implied by the Tefillin Shel Rosh and Tefillin Shel Yad, the two Tefillin which we wear on our head and our arm. The Tefillin Shel Rosh signifies serving Hashem with the mind, with a cogent understanding of the mitzvos. Tefillin shel yad, represents the concept of action, doing what must be done. One must accept upon himself the yoke of Heaven, even if it is not understandable to the mortal mind. These two forces must work cooperatively in man's battle with the yetzer hora. Hence, one may not speak between the brachos for the Tefillin Shel Rosh and the Tefillin Shel Yad.

The Torah tells us to be "tamim im Hashem Elokecha," "wholehearted with Hashem your G-d." (Devarim 18:13) By applying the concerted efforts of our logic and subordinating ourselves to Hashem when the mitzvah's reasoning is beyond us, we become "tamim." The Chozeh m'Lublin once asked his famous student Rav Naftali m'Ropshitz, why the Torah says that one should be tamim, wholehearted. Why should he not be a chacham, wise man, in serving Hashem? The Ropshitzer replied that one must be a chacham in order to know when he should be a tamim! One who does not know when to be a tamim is nothing more than a tam, simpleton.

Judges and officers shall you appoint ... you shall not plant for yourselves an idolatrous tree...and you shall not erect for yourselves a pillar; which Hashem your G-d hates. (16:18,21,22)

The Torah enjoins us not to plant an asheirah, which was a tree that was worshipped as an idol. Likewise, it is also forbidden to erect a pillar or single stone for the purpose of idol-worship. Although at one time this was a manner of worship to Hashem, it was adopted by the idol-worshippers. Hashem despises anything associated with idols. Consequently, it was forbidden for a Jew to worship by any means other than the Mizbayach, altar of many stones. The Torah's juxtaposition of these laws to the pasuk regarding judges leads Chazal in the Talmud Avodah Zarah 52A, to infer that one who appoints an unqualified judge is analagous to one who plants an idolatrous tree.

Horav Nissan Alpert, zl, suggests a novel approach to this parallel. A dayan hagun, qualified judge, is one who is in total control of himself and the law. He belongs to no man. He is his own person. He sublimates himself only to Hashem. He stands as the paragon of virtue, a standard for others to emulate. Indeed, the litigants that stand before him are comfortable and secure that he will submit a true halachic rendering of the case before him.

One who bows down to the ground, who worships the soil under his feet, does not transform the ground into an idol. One who plants a tree with the intent to worship it is held liable from the time of planting. The tree becomes a cheftza d'issura, an object that is forbidden. What is the reason for this discrepency in halachah? Earth is viewed as karka olam, ownerless dirt. Ownership of land is an experience on the part of the owner, but does not effect any change in the land. Hence, land can be viewed as being an entity in which there is no human involvement. When one plants an asheirah, he infuses a part of himself into this tree. The tree is beholden to the human; the earth is not. Man can only prohibit that in which he has some involvement. Earth exists and will continue to exist without man's interaction with it.

The Torah implies that a judge shall not be like an asheirah. He shall not come on to any man. He should be in total control, not totally controlled. A judge who is unqualified, who is inappropriate because of moral weakness -- or subservient to others -- is similar to the asheirah that is planted by man.

Conversely, he should not be like a matzeivah, a pillar, aloof, insulated from the community. A judge who is not sensitive to the needs of his community can not maintain an amicable relationship with the people. He who does not understand the psyche of the people cannot adjudicate properly. Thus, he will certainly not be able to present the final halachah with a formulation that will be readily accepted. It is necessary that both litigants leave the Bais Din, court, happy, accepting the law with respect and dignity.

The judge must also understand that people change; their personalities and attitudes differ with each ensuing generation. Indeed, each community has its own unique character. In presenting his verdict, the judge must realize whom he is addressing. This in no way suggests that the halachah changes. The judge, however, should use seichal, common sense, in issuing his judgement. We find that Chazal issued decrees based upon the changing needs of a generation/community. Hillel made his famous Prozbul, allowing for lenders to collect money during the Shemittah year. The laws of Shemittah were there to help the borrower. Chazal felt they could "extend" the law in such a manner to address the changing personality and needs of that generation.

Hashem did not despise the bamah, pillar, which at one time was the chosen object for worship and offering sacrifices, until after the pagans had adopted it as part of their service. Halachah is firm, but flexible. Its principles may never be undermined. The same concept applies to the judge who renders halachic decisions.

Judges and officers shall you appoint ...and they may judge the people with righteous judgement.(16:18)

The Midrash Tanchuma translates "shoftim" as judges and "shotrim" as executive officers who guide the community in the spirit of the law. Together, they unite the Jewish nation around Hashem and His law. In this way, Hashem's imprimatur is establsihed on the land, giving it the character of a Torah state. Horav Shlomo Breuer, zl, feels that this was the underlying meaning of king Yehoshafat's admonishment to the judges when he warned, "Behold what you are doing; you do not sit in judgement of men, but of G-d, for He is with you at every pronouncement of the law." (Divrei Hayamim II 19:6)

The Midrash explains that "sitting in judgement of G-d," means that Hashem declares to Klal Yisrael, "If you uphold the law I stand highly exalted," As it says in Yeshayah 5:16, "Highly exalted is Hashem Tzvaos, G-d of Hosts, through the Law." The responsibility of Jewish judges and leaders is to exalt Hashem through the law. This is an overwhelming responsibility that defines the essence of leadership.

Horav Breuer advances his explanation of the role of the judges. He questions the choice of the word "tzvaos" in connection with this thought. He cites Horav S.R.Hirsch, zl, who explains the profound meaning of his word. A crowd of men does not in itself form an army. Responsible and thoughtful leaders assign each person to his rightful position. Thus, a multitude of men is transformed into a disciplined army in which each man vies to carry out the orders of his leader. When we apply this idea to Hashem, everything that He has called into existence -- regardless of its size or significance -- forms a great tzavah, army. Each component is delegated to its specific position, so that it may contribute its unique qualities towards enhancing the purpose of creation. Man, too, is a component who finds his place in Hashem's army. The Almighty assigns him the scope and direction of his life's work, defining his role amidst all of creation.

Hashem gave us the Torah which is designed to eradicate violence, brutality, greed and egotism from mankind and to introduce the tools to attain peaceful coexistence. The Torah governs our individual and communal lives. The shoftim are charged to adminster the law, so that harmony may reign among man. Their fidelity to Him causes others to recognize Hashem as Hashem Tzvaos. If the judges fail to uphold the law, if they permit Jewish life to become a moral shambles, then Hashem ceases to rule as Hashem Tzvaos. His army is no longer a harmonious group; they are a group of disparate individuals. The challenge of the judges and shotrim, leaders/administrators, is to see to it that Hashem's law is established and maintained in all circles of Judaism; to inspire each Jew to devote all of himself to his Divinely assigned tasks, so Hashem Tzvaos will be exalted in His reign over us.

Who is the man who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house...and who is the man who has planted a vineyard and not redeemed it? ...And who is the man who has betrothed a woman and not married her?...Who is the man who is fearful and faithearted, let him go and return to his house. (20:5,6, 7,8)

The Torah presents an unusual scene. The Kohen addresses the prospective soldiers as they prepare to go to battle. Those that are unsuitable for battle should leave the field, for fear that their own anxiety or lack of enthusiasm might erode the morale of their comrades. The Torah addresses four types of situations in which the individual ought to return home. First, the individual who recently built a house and has not yet had the opportunity to live in it. His fear is that someone else will move in to his home; second, is the individual who did not yet redeem his vineyard. Once again he is anxious that someone else may take his rightful place in the field; then is the one who has betrothed a young woman, but has not yet married her. He is afraid that someone else will ultimately marry his betrothed. Last is he who is "afraid" of battle. Chazal tell us this refers to the individual who feels his spiritual level is somewhat lacking, a situation that will undermine his courage in time of danger.

We see that the Jewish army was composed of a unique group of soldiers. Indeed, in an attempt to heap scorn and derision on the Torah, a group of maskilim defined the "Jewish army" in farcical terms. They showed how a large group of soldiers lined up to be drafted into the army. The Kohen came out and made his proclamation. One by one, the men dropped out. Hundreds of strong prospective soldiers left for varied reasons of anxiety or fear. Finally, a small group of men remained, eagerly awaiting their call to be selected. Then the Kohen made his last announcement, asking those who feared battle, whose sins hung heavy on their hearts to also leave the select group. They also left, leaving two people - the Shaagas Arye and the Vilna Gaon - standing there bracing themselves on their walking sticks, holding their Talmuds in their hand. "These two old men are what is left of the great Jewish Army!" scoffed the maskilim.

When this incident was related to Rav Chaim Brisker, zl, he said,"True, very true, but they failed to add that it was precisely these two men who waged war with the enemy and triumphed! They did not overwhelm their enemy through conventional tactics. Their weapons were a Sefer Tehillim and blat/foliio of the Talmud. They knew what it takes to win. We Jews have a unique strategy for success. While the maskilim intended to deride the Torah, their critique turned into a Kiddush Hashem. Their scorn evolved into an opportunity for people to see that our strength lies in our prayers and good deeds. Interestingly, these men seemed more concerned with their material possessions than their own lives. After all, should not the fear of death be the overriding source of anxiety? Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, comments that ostensibly anyone who went out to battle was at peace with his Maker and with himself. He was an individual who enthusiastically performed mitzvos and energetically served Hashem.

What would "bother" such a person to the point that he could not fight the enemy? What concern could he harbor that was so overwhelming that he had to go home? It was the "ish acher", other man, who would take his place, who would move into his house, redeem his vineyard, marry his betrothed. Contrary to popular opinion, Horav Schwab contends that it was not jealousy that motivated his anxiety. Rather, it was something radically different. The soldier's concern was that someone would take over his possessions and not act appropriately with them. The house would not be open to guests; kindness would not be its hallmark. The other man would marry his betrothed and have children that would not be reared in the Torah way. He would not perform mitzvos with his property. Yes, the "ish acher" was a very real fear.

A father who is taken ill and is suddently confronted with his mortality. What does he fear? What is his overriding concern? Is it death, the unknown, or is it something more profound.? Is it the fear that his family will not continue along the path he had charted for them? Obviously, this is a real source of apprehension. Perhaps, if we prepare the foundation correctly, if we avail our children an excellent Torah education that will imbue them with Torah values and perspective, our most basic fears will not be realized.


1. May a judge accept a bribe, even if he has in mind to render an honest judgement?

2. What halachos do we derive from the prohibition to plant an asheirah near the Mizbayach?

3. How many Sifrei Torah must the Jewish king have?

4. Into how many sections was Eretz Yisrael divided when they established the Arei Miklat?

5. May women be accepted as witnesses?

6. Who was the Mashuach Milchamah?

7. May we accept converts from the seven nations that occupied Eretz Yisrael?


1. No

2. It is forbidden to plant an asheirah anywhere. It is forbidden to plant any type of tree or to build a house on the Har Habayis.

3. Two - One is placed in his home; the other he takes with him.

4. Four

5. No

6. He was a Kohen Gadol who was annointed specifically to accompany Klal Yisrael into battle.

7. Yes, if they sincerely repent.

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