Sunday, September 07, 2008

D'var Shoftim 5768

D'var Shoftim 5768

Its a familiar scene: a sea of young faces, eager to greet the future, ending one phase of life to start the next. We've all lived it, and witnessed it - that moment when the Rabbi, or the high school principal, or the college president imparts those final words of wisdom, knowing that this is the last opportunity he or she will have to inluence this particular group of young people for the good. Or maybe it's you - as your children that you've guided into adulthood leave their neighborhood, birthplace, and parental home for lands they have not seen - imparting those final words that you hope will urge them to live by the values you instilled in them so painstakingly over the years. This is the setting of D'varim, as Moshe addresses the nation that he has led out of Egypt for the last time in the hopes that they will continue to walk in the ways of Adonai.

But its more than that even, for with this final instruction to the children of Israel, Moshe is also handing the reigns of governance over to the nascent Israelite nation. And in order to do so, those aspects of governance that had been dependent on him and his special relationship with the holy blessed One need to be transformed into something that can be sustained by human beings who do not have Moshe's special form of prophecy. Moshe's role as the one who, in consultation with Adonai, resolves the most difficult cases is the aspect of governance that our present parsha, Shoftim, deals with.

In parashat Yitro, we saw the early development of the judicial system: Moshe judges every case. Yitro, Moshe's father in law, takes one look at this and says:

The thing that you are doing is not good. You will exhaust both yourself and this people that is with you, for the thing is too heavy for you; you cannot do it by yourself (Exodus 18:17-18).

And so, at Yitro's urging and with God's assent, Moshe establishes a tiered judicial system wherein he decides only the most difficult of cases. This is an instance of tzimtzum on the part of Moshe - he reduces his engagement in order to give the children of Israel room to gain the skills necessary to function as an independent nation.

Tzimtzum is a very important aspect of parenting allowing the child to develop skills necessary to survive indepedently. Wendy Mogel notes inh her book Blessing of a Skinned Knee that

In the Jewish mystical principle of tsimtsum we can find a lovely spiritual model for slowly relinquishing control over our children. Tsimtsum means "contraction of divine energy." Originally everything was God. God filled up the entire universe. But in order for one thing to exist, something else has to withdraw. So in order to make a place for the world, God had to withdraw a bit.

At first God stayed close by us, his new and vulnerable creations, to provide help as needed. When we were trapped by the Egyptians, God provided plagues; when we needed to escape quickly, God parted the Red Sea; when we were hungry in the desert, there was the miracle of manna from heaven; when we were thirsty, God provided water from a rock. God was a day by day, sometimes minute by minute, miracle maker. Later as we matured and were able to manage on our own, God withdrew further and made fewer miracles. Left to our own devices, we humans took a lot of false steps. But we learned from our mistakes and became a resilient people, strong enough to endure for more than three thousand years. (Mogel, 92)

While Mogel emphasizes God's role as parent, it is clear that God and Moshe together comprise a parenting team. We see this most clearly in the matter of the golden calf, where God complains to Moshe saying "your people, that you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted ruinously"(Exodus 32:7) to which Moshe counters "Adonai, why does your anger wax hot against your people, that you have brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?"(32:11) In this bickering between God and Moshe we see the paradigmatic parental response in which each parent says to the other "look what your child has done." Thus we see that not just God, but Moshe too is acting as a parent to the children of Israel.

But tzimtzum without instruction is nothing more than abandonment, and so, before Moshe can depart from the world, he must instruct the children of Israel how to carry on without him, he must relinquish that last bit of power he had reserved to himself - the role of deciding the most difficult cases - and impart the principle that guides its application: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, "Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue." We customarily see this rendered as "justice" but I render it "righteousness" because rigteousness is what we achieve when we temper justice with mercy - one of the fundamental principles of this parsha.

The curious thing is that it is the pursuit of righteousness that is commanded. The message is that whether it is attainable or not, it must remain the goal. The question of how righteousness is best pursued is the subject of this parsha. Moshe had the advantage of prophecy unlike no other as is written: "and there did not arise again a prophet in Israel like Moshe, that knew Adonai face to face," but as we move beyond the availability of this kind of prophecy, the pursuit of righteousness relies, ultimately on human integrity.

How does our parsha ensure the kind of human integrity necessary to ensure the pursuit of righteousness? It begins by warning the judge not to recognize faces or accept bribes(16:19), it then goes on to say, concerning information about acts of idolatry or blasphemy that "When it is told to you, you shall listen, and you shall inquire well . . ." and finally a capital sentence cannot be meted out without the testimony of two or three witnesses whose own hands must be the first to execute the sentence. This puts the witnesses in the position of standing by their words. And if concerning crimes against God, which should receive the swiftest retribution, we have this level of due process, how much the more so do crimes between people demand it.

The difficult case, which perplexes the local judge and would have been referred to Moshe under Yitro's system is now to be referred to "the levitical priests, and unto the judge that shall be in those days"(Dvarim 17:9). This is the most radical change to the system: contemporary priests and Judges, applying the precepts outlined earlier replace Moshe acting with Adonai's counsel. This turns the judicial system into something that can last through the generations, rather than being bound to one person. It transitions the Israelites from what may well have been a cult of personality to a rule of law. And it designs into those laws safeguards against vigilanteism or vendetta. It assures that the Israelites have the tools they need to build a just society when they enter the Land.

And as it is with the Israelites, so it is when children leave home, when students leave school, when employees take on new roles – the challenge is to withdraw and let them test the precepts they have learned. At times they will follow them perfectly and all will be well, at other times they will follow them perfectly and all won't be well, at times they will revise them, and improve them, at times they will devise them and even come to harm. The trick is to remember, even in this last case, that people learn from their mistakes, and become resilient only through doing so.

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