Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Netzavim-Vayelech
Parashat Netzavim opens with a gathering together of all the people of Israel to enter into a covenant with God. The Torah, in fact, goes out of its way to make it clear that every single person is present and accounted for:

You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water. That you should enter into the covenant with the Lord your God, and into his oath, which the Lord your God makes with you this day (Devarim, 29:10-12).

It is rare for the Torah to underscore with such detail the full presence of all members of the community. In fact, one of the only other times the Torah does this is found just a few chapters later. There we read that Moshe writes the Torah and gives it to the Kohanim. He then instructs them in the mitzvah of hakhel, that every seven years, at the end of Shmita, they are to gather all the people together and read the Torah to all that are present:

When all Israel is come to appear before the Lord thy God in the place which He shall choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their ears. Gather the people together, men and women, and children, and your stranger that is within your gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the Lord your God, and observe to do all the words of this Torah (Devarim, 31:11-12).

The similarity of these two passages compels us to look at them side by side. When we do so, we note that both of them - the reading of the Torah and the entering into the covenant - parallel momentous events that occurred at Mount Sinai.

Let's first take the reading of the Torah to the entirety of the people. This can be understood as a reenactment of the divine declaration of the Ten Commandments, which was also proclaimed to all the people. This comparison, however, is somewhat imprecise, as here the entire Torah is read and not just the Ten Commandments. What's more, the Ten Commandments were declared, not read from a scroll as is done during hakhel. The event that hakhel replicates is not the giving of the Ten Commandments, but what took place after. Moshe, having received all the detailed laws in Parashat Mishpatim, comes down to the people and writes down all these laws in a book. This book is called the sefer ha'brit, the book of the covenant. Here's what happens next:

And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the ears of the people: and they said, "All that the Lord has said will we do, and we will obey" (Shemot, 24:7).

Notice the direct parallels. In both cases Moshe writes the words of God in a book. He then either reads this book to the people or gives this book to the Kohanim that they should read it to the people. And in both cases the words are read, or are to be read, to the entire people "in their ears." What we have, then, is not a replication of God's giving of the Torah, but rather a replication of the transmission of God's word.

Now, the dominant concern in the book of Devarim is how to ensure that the next generation, which did not experience the miracles of the desert let alone the theophany at Mount Sinai, will continue to remain faithful to God and God's commandments. Sadly, there is no way that future generations can experience or replicate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. But what the mitzvah of hakhel is signaling to us is that this is not necessary. Even for those who were present at Mount Sinai, almost all of what they received was not directly from God. The vast majority of the mitzvot were received through the process of transmission, God's word as communicated by Moshe. And this is something that can be replicated. For just as the human Moshe could put those words in a book and read them to the people, so can we continue that process, passing down the written Torah, recopying those words, and communicating them from one generation to the next.

This, then, brings us back to the beginning of our parasha and the entering into the covenant, which was also done with the entirety of the people. This event also finds its parallel with a similar event at the time of the giving of the Torah. The Torah makes this point explicitly at the end of Parashat Ki Tavo: "These are the words of the covenant, which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, beside the covenant which He made with them in Horeb" (Devarim, 29:1).

Rashi states that the covenant at Horeb (Mount Sinai) to which the verse refers is the one at the end of Vayikra (chapter 25), where the Torah lists all the tragedies that will befall the people if they violate God's commandments. The problem with this interpretation is that those verses speak about the consequences of violating the covenant but do not constitute the covenant itself. More precisely, then - and this is probably what Rashi meant - we may say that the verses in Vayikra are "sealing" the covenant, or that they are the "penalty clause" of the covenant that was made at the foot of Mount Sinai. The covenant in the Plains of Moab likewise has a penalty clause - all of the curses in Parashat Ki Tavo. But the covenant itself, the one that the entirety of the people is entering into at the beginning of our parasha, is a reenactment of the original covenant at Mount Sinai.

And what was that covenant? It was nothing more than Moshe's reading of the "book of the covenant" into the "ears of the people" and their willing acceptance of it upon themselves with their famous declaration, "We will hear and we will obey."

What emerges, then, is both a formalized reentering of the covenant for the generation that was about to enter into the land and a once-every-seven-years reenactment of the transmission of the Torah, the substance of the covenant. What was significant is that these two events were done by the people and with all the people.

First, by the people. What made the covenant possible was the willing participation of the people. Their ability to be autonomous agents and meaningful partners in the covenant was only made possible when God's commanding voice at Mount Sinai receded and Moshe stepped forward to represent God to the people. When that happened, the people, who until this point had retreated and cowered from the direct word of God, were able to move close, to engage, and to enter into the covenant. God's word had to be taken from heaven and brought to earth. For God's Torah to be a Torah for humans, it had to be a Torah transmitted by humans.

And hence, with all the people. For in order for this transmission to continue, it cannot be the responsibility of a few individuals. It must be the responsibility of the entire people. The covenant is not just a commitment to observe the laws of the Torah. It is a covenant to preserve the Torah itself, its words, its memory, its power, its commanding force. If everyone is bound by the Torah, then everyone must become active parts of the mesorah, ensuring that the Torah is taught, that it is heard, and that it is passed down from one generation to the next.

We have often failed to fully live up to this responsibility. Secular Jews might delegate this responsibility to the religious. Lay people might delegate it to rabbis or Torah scholars. Parents might delegate it to their children's teachers. When this happens, we have robbed the Torah and the mesorah of all the voices that are an integral part of the covenant. And we make the Torah smaller. It becomes a Torah that increasingly speaks to a smaller and smaller segment of society.

To quote another verse from this week's parasha, the Torah is not in heaven (30:12). It comes from heaven but is now found here on earth, transmitted through humans, accessible to humans, and able to speak to humans. We can be equal partners in the covenant because the Torah can and must be embraced and transmitted by us as individuals and as a community. It is only in this way that the Torah will be able to continue to be passed down and continue to talk to all of us in all our wonderful diversity.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Ki Tavo

Mixed Blessings?

In the middle of the extended section on the calamities and curses that will befall the Israelites if they fail to observe the mitzvot, we find a curious set of verses:

Because you served not the Lord your God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; therefore shall you serve your enemies which the Lord shall send against you, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things (Devarim, 28:47-48).

Not only have we sinned, the Torah seems to be telling us, but we sinned when we had every opportunity to serve God to the best of our ability, when we were prosperous and happy. And so, as a measure-for-measure punishment, we will be stripped of this goodness and left in a state of dependency and want.

Read this way, the message seems to be that it is easier to serve God when all is going well. But is this actually the case? Often, it is exactly the opposite that is true. When we are dependent and in need, we call out to God. It is when we are successful that we tend to forget God. Sometimes this is because we are drawn after hedonistic, or at least materialistic, pleasures. At other times it is because we grow arrogant, thinking, as the verse states, that "it is my power and the might of my hand that has gotten me this wealth" (8:17).

Most of the time, however, it is not so much that we rebel against or reject God but something subtler and, for that reason, all the more pervasive. It is a variation of Pierre-Simon Laplace's reported response to Napoleon's question ("But where is God in all this?") after he had discussed the orbits of Saturn and Jupiter: "Sire, I had no need for that hypothesis." When we have it good, we have "no need for that hypothesis." God stops being a present force in our life, stops serving an obvious purpose. It is less about rejecting than it is about ignoring and forgetting.

This is of course a problem that we face today. Overall, we have it quite good. What makes us remember God?

One possibility is the drastic answer presented in our parasha: hardship and privation. If the people are taken as slaves, made naked and starving, they will by necessity turn to God to save them. Even less severe circumstances could lead to a profound sense of dependency. Consider the verse at the end of the section of curses: "And your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall fear day and night, and shall have none assurance of your life" (28:66).

The simple sense of this verse is that every moment you will fear the next tragedy that may befall you. But the Talmud (Menachot, 103b), quoted by Rashi, offers another explanation: "you will not have any stored food, but will have to rely on the baker daily for your bread."

When Boris Yeltsin visited the United States in 1989, seeing an American supermarket impressed him more than anything else. As is known, in the U.S.S.R., people had to wait in long lines in hopes of receive basic food items, and here all was available for the taking. The AP reports that on returning to Russia he said to his followers, "Their supermarkets have 30,000 food items... You can't imagine it. It makes the people feel secure."

It is because of this basic sense of security we all take for granted that it is so hard to see God in our lives. As someone once said regarding why tefillah is such a challenge in Modern Orthodox schools: "We are asking the children to pray in a language they don't understand, to a God they might not believe in, for things they don't need." If we are free from basic need, what will make us turn to God?

Undoubtedly, were we reduced to privation and a precarious existence, were our lives "hanging in doubt before us," we would turn to God on a regular basis. But this is certainly not something we would wish on anyone. There is a reason that this is a curse in the Torah. It is an answer of last resort.

So what then is the ideal solution? An answer can be found in the opening of our parasha. There the people are told that they are to bring their first fruits to the Temple and express their gratitude for what God has given them. But it is not just a simple "thank you." For it is easy to say thank you without any real meaning. The Torah, rather, is teaching us how to say thank you.

Before any thank you is uttered, the person first recites what has brought him to this place - the descent to Egypt, the slavery, the calling out to God, God's redeeming of the people, and God's giving the land of Israel to the people. We must pause to remember how and when things were different. If our national history is vivid in our memory, if the hardships faced, wars fought, and challenges overcome are in the forefront of our consciousness, then we will know what God has given us and what God is continuing to give to us.

What is the antidote for the concern that we will not serve God bi'simcha u'bi'tuv levav meirov kol - in joy and gladness of the heart, from an abundance of good? To learn how to appreciate that what we have is from God. Then, the Torah tells us, using almost identical phrasing, vi'samachta bi'kol hatov - you will rejoice in all the good. And it will be a rejoicing that serves God, because you will know that it is kol ha'tov asher natan likha Hashem E-lokhekha, "the good that you have been given by God" (26:11).

Of course, this is easier said than done. The point of giving thanks to God is to cultivate this sense of gratitude and blessedness, but it doesn't happen automatically. We have many blessings in our liturgy which can help us do this - the blessings before food, the blessings after food, blessings on good tidings, on wonders of nature - but if these are said mechanically they will fail to shape our religious sensibilities. The lesson from the recital of the first fruits is that we must not pay attention to what we are saying (already a major accomplishment) but also take the time to truly consider how things were different in the past and how things could be different, were we not so fortunate, in the present.

In a way, this is a variation of the line, "Remember that there are children starving in Africa." As a means of getting a child to eat her food, this statement is probably useless today. But a thoughtful consideration of the privation of others can help a person cultivate a sense of appreciation for the opportunities and advantages that she has been given and a sense of gratitude to God for the blessings that she has received.

This suggests another, related, approach. For in full, the final verse of the first fruits reads thusly: "And you shall rejoice in all the good that God has given you and your household - you, and the Levi, and the stranger in your midst." The command to share our bounty with those less fortunate is not just an outgrowth of our recognition that our prosperity comes from God. It can actually be the source of this recognition.

If we go out and contribute to the betterment of those who are less fortunate than ourselves, if we approach them not just with sympathy but with empathy, if we put ourselves in their place and understand their realities, then it will not be possible for us to take what we have for granted. If we spend more time in homeless shelters, in soup kitchens, and in depressed neighborhoods, we will more deeply appreciate what it is that God has given us.

This does not mean that we are to use these individuals instrumentally so that we can feel more blessed. Far from it! Rather, by truly caring and connecting we will naturally appreciate our blessings, and then, just as naturally, we will be led to share these blessings with them since we will know that, ultimately, all these blessings come from God. And then this virtuous cycle will repeat. The more we feel blessed, the more we will give. And the more we give, the more we will feel blessed.

As Rosh HaShannah approaches let us pray that next year will be one of only blessings and prosperity. And let us do what we need to do to be deserving of these blessings. Let us live our lives with the knowledge that what we have is a blessing from God, so that we may truly rejoice in all the good that God has given us - us and the Levi and the stranger in our midst.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Ki Teitze

Toward a Torat Chaim: Embracing Conflicting Values

Ki Teitze is a parasha densely packed with mitzvot. Of course, just because there are all these laws does not mean that it is always clear what their parameters are or how they are to be implemented. Should determining this be done only through technical and formal rules, or do values and underlying principles play a role?

In this regard, it is worth noting two discussions in the Talmud around two different mitzvot found in Ki Teitzei. In Devarim 24:17, we read, "Do not take as collateral the cloak of a widow." The Mishna (Baba Metzia, 116a) asks whether this applies to all widows or perhaps only poor widows. The first opinion is that it applies to all widows because the verse does not distinguish. Rabbi Shimon, however, states that it only applies to poor widows. The Talmud explains that Rabbi Shimon believes that one is entitled in the interpretive process to darshinan ta'ama dikra, to use the reasons of the mitzvah to determine its legal parameters. The Talmud refers to this position of Rabbi Shimon in many places, but the general sense is that it is a position that is rejected, that we cannot use our understanding of the reason behind a mitzvah to determine its parameters.

Now contrast this to the Talmudic discussion regarding another mitzvah in Ki Teitze, the mitzvah of perikah and ti'inah, unloading and reloading an animal that is collapsing under its load (Devarim, 22:4). What is the purpose of this mitzvah? Is it, asks the Gemara (Baba Metziah, 32a), to alleviate the suffering of the animal, a concern for tza'ar ba'alei chaim, animal suffering? Or, alternatively, is it a concern for the owner who may lose his donkey, if it dies on him, leaving him stranded by the side of the street? In other words, is animal suffering a Biblical concern or only a rabbinic one?

One reason this matters is that it will determine the weight of our obligation to alleviate the suffering of animals in general. However, the immediate concern of this Gemara is not to extract the value and apply it elsewhere but to use the very value itself in interpreting the parameters of the mitzvah. If, for example, tza'ar ba'alei chaim is the operative principle here, says the Gemara, then the mitzvah would apply even if the donkey was ownerless. However, it would also mean that the primary mitzvah would be unloading, rather than reloading, the animal. If the concern were for the owner, in contrast, there would be no obligation if the animal was ownerless, and the obligation to reload might be as great as that to unload.

The Gemara leaves this question unresolved, but what clearly emerges is that one can use the reason behind a mitzvah to guide the interpretation of the parameters of the mitzvah. What is particularly fascinating is that this Gemara indicates that the application of hermeneutic principles can be guided by what is understood to be the underlying reason of the mitzvah.

How to reconcile this with the earlier statement - that we do not use the underlying reasons for a mitzvah to interpret its legal parameters - is unclear. It seems that sometimes this can be done, but it is not clear when. Certainly, one key factor is whether we can state with any confidence what the underlying principle actually is. If multiple reasons can be given for a mitzvah - which is almost always the case, witness the two explanations for perikah and ti'inah above - then using an assumed reason to guide interpretation would seem much more questionable.  In an article I wrote a few years ago, I explore this issue at length and identify a number of different approaches and criteria as to when the reasons of a mitzvah are or are not used in the process of legal interpretation. The values underpinning the mitzvot can, within certain limited parameters, play a role in the interpretation of a law. But values emerge not only from the mitzvot but from the Torah narratives as well, and the message of a narrative might even, at times, point in an opposite direction than that of certain mitzvot.

The mitzvah of recognizing the first-born son in this week's parasha is an interesting case in point. We are told that a father cannot give the double portion to a younger, more beloved son, and that he is required to recognize the first-born's rightful status and privilege. A moment's reflection, however, will reveal that many narratives of the Torah tell the opposite story. From God's preferring of Hevel's sacrifice of Kayin's, from the choosing of Yitzchak over Yishmael and Yaakov over Esav, all the narratives of the Torah tell the story that what matters is not birth order but righteousness and merit. Scholars call this phenomenon of bypassing the first-born the "usurping of the right of primogeniture" and note that this is a recurring theme through Breishit.

A prime example of this is when Yaakov gives Yosef two tribes, a double portion, thereby favoring him over the older son, Reuven. This is, of course, in direct violation of the prohibition to favor the younger son of the beloved wife (Rachel) over that of the hated wife (Leah)!

Even God violates this law: "So shall you say to Pharaoh: My son, my first-born, is Israel" (Shemot, 4:22). In birth order, Israel is not the first-born of the nations. But God has chosen us, and has given us the status of the first-born, flying in the face of the biblical prohibition!

The point of these narratives is a powerful and revolutionary one: hierarchies of society do not matter as much as personal worth or merit. So how do we deal with the mitzvah in this week's parasha which tells us that we must uphold these societal hierarchies?

It seems we are mandated at times to embrace opposing values. The world is complex, and simple solutions are almost always the wrong ones. On the one hand, societal structures should be maintained - the stability of the society is a key value. On the other hand, we can and should recognize the basic equality of all human beings and judge people and reward people based on merit, not status. Our charge is to find a way to work toward this more ideal vision while not undermining the status quo.

One way to do this in the case of inheritance is through a deathbed bequest. Such an instrument does not change the laws of inheritance; it merely circumvents them by gifting the property before one's death. In fact, we find that the Rabbis did exactly this in creating the vehicle of matanat shekhiv mei'ra, a deathbed bequest, which is not constrained by the laws of the first-born's double portion. In fact, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel states that a father should be praised if he chooses to completely disinherit all his children if they are undeserving (Baba Batra, 133b)! And yet the Torah's mandate of the double portion remains on the books and is binding when one dies intestate. It is in this way that the Torah laws are upheld and the societal structures are preserved while the Torah's vision of a society based on merit is embraced and approximated.

These ideas are potentially dangerous ones. If values can play a role in interpreting the law, even a limited one, and if values open up other avenues even as the law is maintained, what is to say that this won't get out of hand? Who is to stop someone from irresponsibly giving a facile reinterpretation of halakha based on what he thinks the underlying reason is, disregarding all the formal rules and principles of interpretation? What is to stop someone from coming up with a legal workaround that, rather than respecting the law on the books, completely undermines it?

These dangers are very real. We must not turn halakha into the mere expression of a system of values, rejecting the binding and formal nature of the law. The other extreme, however, is equally wrong. We must not jettison the vibrant dynamic of values and law and turn halakha into a rigid system of pure formalisms.

Our task is not an easy one. We must work hard and with vigilance to maintain this dynamic, at once affirming lo darshinan ta'ama dikra, that it would be hubris to think that we can know what the principles are and how to precisely apply them, and tza'ar ba'alei chaim, that Torah principles and similar values guide us as we follow the formal rules to interpret and apply halakha. We must at once insist that the younger son cannot be given a double portion and at the same time find the proper instruments that allow for status based on worth and merit to be recognized. It is only in this way that we will embody a Torat chaim, living a life true both to the Torah's laws and to its deeper values for us and its vision for society.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

Can We Tolerate Dissent?  Can We not?

One of the primary institutions needed for the well running of society is its legal system, both the laws proper, and the bodies to adjudicate and enforce those laws.  For those about to enter the Land of Israel, the substance of the laws is no less than all the mitzvot of the Torah.  As to the judicial system that will enforce these laws - that is that focus of the beginning sections of this week's parasha, named, fittingly, Shoftim, judges.

The Torah commands not only the appointment of judges and officers of the law throughout the land, it also sets up a High Court and takes serious measures to protect the authority of this court.  We are told that when a matter cannot be resolved otherwise, we are to take it to the place that God has chosen - Jerusalem - and bring it before the "priests and the judge who will be at that time" (17:9).  This body, understood to be the Sanhedrin or High Court, will issue a ruling, and that ruling must be followed without deviation.  Dissent will not be tolerated: "And the person who acts presumptuously, and will not listen to the priest who stands there to serve before the Lord thy God, or unto the judge, that man shall die, and you shall eradicate the evil from Israel" (17:12).  The court will act harshly and decisively to stamp out any threat to its authority.

We can understand the need to protect the court's role as the highest and ultimate authority empowered to interpret the law.  If people could interpret and apply the law as they saw fit, general lawlessness would ensue.  Nevertheless, it is hard to identify with the harshness of the response - the death penalty! - for any deviation.  Moreover, such squelching of opposing and critical voices would see to give the court absolute, unchecked power.  What, then, is to stop absolute power from corrupting absolutely?

As far as the death penalty is concerned, the Rabbis have significantly limited its scope.While making it clear that the duty to follow the rulings of the court is incumbent upon everyone, the Rabbis have said that the death penalty of the verses is reserved for the zaken mamre, the rebellious elder.  Only a great sage, a great legal scholar, can receive such a punishment.  If he acts in opposition to the court, and not only acts, but - add the Rabbis - rules for others in this manner, then he has positioned himself as a competing legal authority.  Theoretical debate is fine, but to rule in practice against the court is not fine.  This can truly undermine the court, and must be stopped.

The Rabbis impose many more criteria that must be met before one can be considered a zaken mamre, effectively making this category moot. With the death penalty effectively removed, how would the court's authority be defended when there was real opposition? Well, there are other ways.

In a well-known story, we hear that Rabbi Eliezer ruled that a certain oven was ritually pure while all other rabbis ruled that it was impure. Rabbi Eliezer provides miraculous signs that he is correct: a carob tree is uprooted, a stream of water flows backwards, and the walls of the study house bend in. The punch line that we are all familiar with is when the rabbis say to God: "The Torah is not in Heaven! It is for us to decide!" The authority of the court is so great, this audacious story tells us, that it trumps even God’s own claim as to the true meaning of the Torah!

But the story doesn't end there. For the court’s authority has been challenged not only by God, who in the story chuckles and steps back, but also by a great rabbinic sage, someone who is not willing to step down and go quietly, some who acts in highly public and demonstrative ways to prove that he is right.  This, the story tells us, is a serious threat.

This perhaps is the meaning of the carob, the stream, and the walls of the study house. These represent the societal structures and the natural order of things. For Rabbi Eliezer to push his position against the court, was an attempt to reverse the natural order, an act that could shake the foundations of society. And it must be stopped.  And so: "On that day all that objects that R. Eliezer had declared to be ritually clean were brought in and burnt by fire." (Baba Mezia 59b).  Without violence and without putting anyone to death, the rabbis demonstrated, firmly and decisively, that challenges to its authority would not and could not be tolerated.

All this is well and good.  But with such absolute authority, who is to keep the court honest? What checks and balances exist over them?  For this, we return to the beginning of the parasha - the appointment of judges. In the United States, the check that the other branches have over the Supreme Court is its ability to appoint and approve of the justices, and to create lower courts.  This echoes the Torah's mandate that the people appoint the judges and also create regional courts: "Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your gates" - that is your cities - "and all your tribes" (16:18).  Regional courts distribute the power somewhat - it is not all concentrated in the hands of the High Court.  Beyond this, there is a mandate that the court not only represent the majority, but that they also work to protect the rights of the marginal and disempowered in society: "You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons… Justice, only justice, you shall pursue." (16:19-20). And the judges must protect themselves against outside influences: "You may not take a bribe" - even, say the Rabbis, if it is with the intent of judging correctly - "for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and corrupts the words of the righteous"(16:19).

Structurally, however, there is no one whose role it is to ensure that these mandates are being followed. The court must be its own watchdog.  If they are found violating, they can be disqualified - a type of impeachment - but short of that, it is their own integrity which needs to keep them in check.  It is for this reason that the Torah, in Yitro's advice to Moshe, describes the need for high personal character of the judges.  This and only this is what will keep them honest.

But such men are hard to find, and - even when found - can be corrupted by power.  A story is told that when Rav Maimon, the first Minister of Religion in Israel, was looking to re-form the Sanhedrin, he was asked by Ben Gurion: "But where will you find people who are sonei batzah, (Shemot 18:21), despisers of unearned gain?" To which Rav Maimon responded, "With enough money, you can get anything, even sonei batzah."

In looking at this system and its challenges, it is clear that a lot rides on the appointment of judges - who is chosen, who does the choosing, who they represent, and the strength of their personal character and integrity. Outside of Israel, halakhic authority is distributed and adherence to it is volitional (as a matter of secular law), and by nature the rabbis and the batei din have to be more responsive to those who would come to them.  In Israel, however, we have courts with real concentrated authority, as described in our parasha. For such a system to be just, to be free of corruption and non-oppressive, the right judges are needed. Without this, such authority can do more harm than good. If we are to have a rabbinic body such as this, then it is incumbent upon as to make sure that we are all - as a society - living up to the mandate of our parasha and ensuring that the judges we appoint are the judges who will truly embody "justice, only justice" for the people whom they serve. With this we will be deserving to merit the blessing of the verse: "So that you will live and possess the land with the Lord your God gives you"(16:20), which teaches us, says Rashi, "that the appointment of fit and proper judges is worthy of give life to the Jewish People and to cause them to dwell in their land."

Shabbat shalom!
Reprinted from 2012