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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Shoftim

You shall not plant for yourselves an idolatrous tree - any tree - near the Altar of Hashem your G-d. (16:21)

Whether the tree was specifically designated for idol worship, or any tree planted near the Bais Hamikdash, it is forbidden - as it was the custom of the pagans to landscape their temples. The inside of the Mikdash is important, not the edifice's external beauty. From the juxtaposition of the pasuk concerning the idolatrous tree on to the pesukim about appointing judges, Chazal derive the importance of appointing only those judges who are reputable, G-d-fearing, honest men. It goes without saying that he must be erudite in all areas of Jewish law. Indeed, Chazal say that one who appoints an unqualified judge is tantamount to one who plants an asheirah. While the juxtaposition does convey a message, we should, however, endeavor to see what an asheirah has in common with an unqualified, unscrupulous judge.

Horav Chaim Soloveitchik, zl, suggests that while a "regular" idol is unmistakably an avodah zarah, because its appearance is not deceiving, the asheirah is different. Externally, the asheirah seems to be just another beautiful tree. Its sinister being, its evil essence, is concealed by its outer beauty. One might stumble; one might err and unwittingly come too close and fall under its influence. This is analogous to the unqualified judge, the inappropriate leader, the unscrupulous spiritual mentor who outwardly appears to be righteous, moral and upstanding, but behind closed doors is all a sham. Such leadership devours its followers, as they fail to see through the cloak of false righteousness.

We must ask ourselves whose fault it is that such a leadership continues to thrive. The Torah says, "You shall not plant an asheirah." To plant is to sustain, to nurture, to care for and support. In other words: We put the asheirah there; we plant and care for it. Likewise, we keep on supporting and glorifying the "asheiros" of our generation. If we would not plant them and maintain them where they are, they would not be able to exert their harmful influence over their unsuspecting community.

According to the Teaching that they will teach you. And according to the judgement that they will say to you, shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you; right or left. (17:11)

Torah leadership expound da'as Torah, the perspective as seen by the Torah. It is therefore imperative that we listen and follow their instructions. These are people whose Torah scholarship is part of their essence. They are imbued with a holiness and purity that emanates from them, a yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, that permeates their every endeavor. Their perspective is Torah perspective. It is the purpose of this thesis neither to validate the importance of listening to da'as Torah nor to confirm its Divine origin, but rather to indicate that a person who achieves the status of rendering da'as Torah is not an average person. His insight is piercing, and his outlook is visionary.

The following story, which is cited by Yalkut Lekach Tov, sends home this profound message: The Brisker Rav, Horav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, zl, was a young man when he assumed the leadership of the community of Brisk. While he was young, he was an accomplished Torah scholar, widely respected for his erudition and Torah insight. The story takes place when the Rav was twenty-three years old. It was Rosh Hashanah. Two officers came to the shul to ask the Rav to come quickly with them to recite vidui, confessional, with a Jewish prisoner who had been condemned to death. Not wishing to disturb the Rav who was at the moment in middle of saying Shemonah Esrai, they said they would return a bit later. A few of the members of the congregation suggested asking another one of the rabbanim to meet with the prisoner. The officers responded that they had orders to bring the Rav of Brisk, not just any rabbi.

When the Brisker Rav concluded his tefillah, prayer, the people rushed over and told him what had occurred. They understandably encouraged him to go immediately. He gave the matter some thought, finally deciding that he was not going. Fearing reprisal from the authorities, they demanded that the Rav acquiesce and go with the officers. A number of committee members were insolent enough to tell the Rav that he was endangering the lives of the entire community. The Rav would not change his position. He was not going. The officers returned during the Mussaf Shemonah Esrai. Sensing their presence, the Rav continued standing as if he was still praying. The congregation's patience had reached a bursting point, when one of the older, more distinguished looking members of the shul, came forward to the officers and claimed that he was actually the Rav. They believed him and proceeded to go with him to the jail.

After davening, services, two policemen came to the Brisker Rav's home. His family feared that they were coming to arrest him for refusing to go with the original messengers. They quickly discovered that these policemen were from a different community. They had been sent to stop the Rav from going to the jail. Apparently, the accused Jew was not guilty; it was a case of mistaken identity and he would not be executed. It was, however, too late. The "elder", who was so clever and had "replaced" the Rav, had inadvertently caused the death of an innocent Jew. Had they only listened to the young rav, had they only accepted his da'as Torah, a Jew would be alive, a tragedy would have been averted.

We must ask ourselves; How often do we choose to ignore the instructions of our gedolim, Torah leadership? How often do we think we have all the answers, asserting that they are not attuned to the "times"? How often do we realize too late that our impulsiveness and arrogance have created situations that unfortunately have had tragic consequences?

You shall come to the Kohanim, the Leviim, and to the Judge who will be in those days. (17:9)

Rashi explains that we are required to listen specifically to the shofet/spiritual leader of our day. Horav Simcha Bunim m'Peshischa, zl, cited the Baal Shem Tov, zl, who, prior to his death, remarked that Hashem has selected ten different types of spiritual leadership: Neviim, prophets; Shoftim/Zekeinim, judges/Elders; Melachim, kings; Kohanim; Tannaim; Amoraim; Nesiim; Gaonim; Rabbanim; and the last have been the tzaddikim, righteous Jews of every generation. The Baal Shem asserted that he initiated the last hanhagah, form of leadership, that would precede the advent of Moshiach.

The Satan once asked the Heavenly Tribunal, "How do these tzaddikim distinguish themselves over other Jews, who are all enjoined to become tzaddikim?" The Heavenly tribunal responded that there would always be groups of chasidim, virtuous Jews, that would follow the instructions of a tzaddik who would serve as their leader, guiding them in serving Hashem. Realizing that such leadership could be an obstacle to his efforts to entice Klal Yisrael to sin, the Satan was determined to foil the influence that these tzaddikim might exert on their chasidim. The Satan asked permission to do what he does best: prevent the inspiration from positively affecting the chasidim. He would accomplish his goal by undermining the tzaddik's power through slander and dispute. He would see to it that each group would remain that way - an individual group, with no respect for the other chasidim or tzaddikim. Each group would revere its own rebbe and tzaddik, but the members would disparage others who did not follow their rebbe.

Regrettably, the Satan has succeeded in his nefarious objective. We might consider this when we wonder why Moshiach has not yet arrived.

Horav Menachem Mendel m'Kotzk, zl, was a talmid, disciple, of the "Peshishcha." A teacher once came to the Rebbe and asked his advice regarding a shidduch, match, for his son, a gifted young man. The young lady's father was a wealthy man who had promised to support the young couple indefinitely. Moreover, he was willing to give him, the father, a hefty sum of money, so that he would no longer be compelled to teach for a living. There was, however, one problem: the girl's father was not a G-d-fearing Jew.

Rav Menachem Mendel remained silent as his rebbe instructed the man to go through with the match. "Things will work out," said the Peshishcha. When the man left, Rav Menachem Mendel ran after him and said, "I think you should not go through with the shidduch. It will not work out." The man was now perturbed. Should he listen to the rebbe or to his distinguished student? Unfortunately, when in doubt, one follows the concerns of his wallet. The desire for financial security loomed over him. It overwhelmed him like it has overwhelmed so many others. The teacher agreed to the shidduch.

The young man married the rich person's daughter. Each party received his monthly check, and it appeared as if they would all live happily ever after. A few years later, the Peshishcha passed on to his eternal resting-place. Suddenly, the situation began to change. The young man, having been "fattened" by his father-in-law's benevolent nature, stopped studying Torah and began delving into secular books. After a short period of time, he stopped his observant life-style. The father's business, which had been doing well, suddenly went into bankruptcy. The heart-broken father decided to travel to Kotzk to speak to the Rebbe.

Rav Menachem Mendel told him, "I told you so; you should not have allowed that shidduch to take place." The man retorted, "But the Peshishcha told me to; he agreed with me." The Kotzker responded, "Every tzaddik is given the ability to see the future that will occur during his lifetime. He does not see beyond his own mortality. The Peshishcha saw that the young man would thrive. He could not see, however, what would transpire after he passed on, which in this case meant the spiritual demise of this young man." We have only the shofet of our day.

He shall write for himself two copies of this Torah... It shall be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear Hashem. (17:18,19)

When he ascends the throne of monarchy, the newly-chosen king is to write two Sifrei Torah. He is to learn from them constantly, so that he will grow in his fear of Hashem. This will prevent his important position from making him feel too powerful. This is enigmatic. We are not talking about the average citizen; we are referring to the Melech Yisrael, king of the Jewish people, who has been hand-picked by Hashem for this appointment. Certainly, he is learned and G-d-fearing. Why does the Torah reflect such concern about his future spiritual standing?

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that this is one of the potential dangers of power. One is availed the opportunity to reign over others, to be in a prestigious position, to dwell in the limelight. Without warning, a personality change can occur. He is no longer the same fine, pleasant, committed person he was in the past. Something happens: perhaps it is all the kavod, honor, and glory; or it could be status - he thinks he is now better than others. We have only to observe the changes that have taken place in people we knew, when they had been just like everybody else, in order to note the transformation. There is only one cure for the disease of kavod - Torah. Through the studying of Torah, one is returned to reality, to contemplate the true source of power. Horav Schwab explains the redundancy in the tefillah, prayer, which we recite on Shabbos Mevarchim, when we bless the coming month. We implore Hashem for chaim: a life of yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, fear of sin, and a life of osher v'kavod, wealth and honor. Afterwards, we ask for ahavas Torah, love of Torah, and yiraas Shomayim - once again. Why do we repeat our supplication for yiraas Shomayim? The answer is simple: The first request for yiraas Shomayim is followed by a request for wealth and honor. Once we have received osher v'kavod, we have to pray for yiraas Shomayim once again, because it just is not the same anymore. May every Jew merit osher v'kavod - and that extra dose of yiraas Shomayim.

He shall write for himself two copies of this Torah in a book. (17:18)

The Melech Yisrael, Jewish king, is instructed to write two Sifrei Torah: one that he keeps in his home; and a second one that he takes with him wherever he goes. We can well understand the need for a Sefer Torah that accompanies the king as he goes out, whether it is to war or just around the corner. The Torah dictates his life. It shapes his perspective. Never may he divorce his mind from the Torah. Why, however, does he have to write a Torah just so that it will remain in his palace, together with his other valuables? Every Jew should have a Torah. Is there a reason that the Sefer Torah that is his companion is not sufficient for fulfilling this mitzvah?

Horav Elchanan Sorotzkin, zl, offers a profound response. He explains that one can become too complacent in relationship to a Torah that is with him all the time; that joins him in battle; that is with him when he adjudicates law; that accompanies him to shul, to learn; that is by his side for every endeavor he undertakes. It might become profaned because of his "familiarity" with it. Thus, he must every once in a while step back to "catch his breath," take a few private moments with the Sefer Torah that is kept in his treasury. Let him introspect and observe whether he is acting properly, whether his intentions are sublime, whether he is sill in touch with spiritual reality. Yes, the Sefer Torah in his treasury will ensure that his relationship with the Sefer Torah that accompanies him at all times remains special.


1) What type of worship to Hashem became prohibited because the pagans began to worship their idols in a similar manner?
2) Does the Melech Yisrael's son have priority in succeeding his father's throne?
3) Who must give the zeroa, lechayim and keivah to the Kohen?
4) May the avodah in the Bais Hamikdash be performed while one is sitting?
5) May we accept the written testimony of witnesses?
6) May witnesses testify while they are sitting?
7) Are we permitted to accept converts from the seven nations that live in Eretz Yisrael?


1) Offering korbanos on a matzeivah, one stone.
2) Yes, if he is worthy of the position.
3) Only a Levi and Yisrael.
4) No, the Kohen must stand.
5) No.
6) No.
7) Yes, providing they are sincere.


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