Parashah Ponderings

Set a king over yourself.

Parashat Shoftim / פרשת שופטים
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

(This is an updated repost of my words from August 21, 2015. As we head into mid-term elections, we might apply the questions about who leads our country, with which I conclude the essay, to all candidates for office — national, state-wide, and local.)

If, after you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 17:14-15)

Any child who has ever attended Hebrew school will tell you that King David is a hero. He slew Goliath. He wrote beautiful poetry. From David’s lineage will eventually come the messiah. So great a hero is David that we sing ecstatically about him: many Jews learn the song “David Melekh Yisrael – David King of Israel” early in their lives and remember the hand motions that accompany the song well into their upper years. Given what we learn about David and how much we celebrate him, one would think that his anointing was the greatest thing that ever happened to Israel.

Our reverence for King David and, to some extent, for King Solomon and other kings of Israel notwithstanding, according to the Torah God is actually quite ambivalent about Israel having a king at all. In I Samuel 8, the elders of Israel press the prophet Samuel to appoint a king over Israel, which displeases Samuel and causes him to pray to God. God responds, “Listen to what the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king, as they’ve done time and again since I brought them out of Egypt. Listen to them, but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” By appointing a king, Israel was rejecting God’s sovereignty and taking its life as a nation into its own hands. God acquiesces to the people’s demand for a king reluctantly, to say the least.

Our tradition’s ambivalence over the inauguration of an earthly king over Israel serves as a backdrop to Deuteronomy 17:14-20, which we find in this week’s reading. Because the Torah portrays God as not so keen on the idea of competing with an earthly king for Israel’s allegiance, God lays out four criteria by which Israel must determine who will be king. Paradoxically, while God guides the people in choosing whom to “set over them,” the king they choose will ultimately be “one chosen by the Lord your God” (17:15). If Israel heeds God’s directive in choosing a king, God will ultimately approve and things will go well with Israel. On the other hand, if Israel spurns God’s directive and chooses a king who doesn’t fit the criteria, God will let Israel know that this king was not one that God chose, and as a result, things won’t go so well for Israel.

What are the four criteria? First, the king cannot be a foreigner. A foreign king might not serve in the best interests of Israel and might even ensnare Israel into worshipping foreign gods. Second, the king must not have too many horses. A king obsessed with owning lots of horses might be driven to sell his own people to acquire more and more horses, thus returning Israelites to servitude in Egypt, which happened to be a great exporter of horses in the ancient near east. Third, the king must not have too many wives, lest his personal, familial concerns divert his attention from matters of governance. Fourth, he must not be a person of excessive wealth. Too much wealth might be corrupting. These criteria make perfect sense. Indeed, together they suggest something about the character of king that God would want to reign over Israel, namely loyal, humble, honest and clear-thinking.

Guiding Israel’s choice of a king, however, is insufficient to allay God’s concern over how the king will reign once on the throne. The king might measure up to each of the four criteria and still fail to govern Israel as God would like. Thus, God commands that once the king is seated on his throne, “he shall write a copy of the Torah for himself” to keep by his side, “to read so that he may learn to fear God, to observe faithfully every word of God’s Teaching” (17:18-19). This Torah was likely the book of Deuteronomy, “a repetition of the laws and history known from the earlier books of the Torah” and not the entire scroll of Torah that we read from today (Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, New York, The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001, p. 1092).

We might be impressed that the king himself actually writes a book of Torah, which, to be sure, is a matter of debate. But what is truly impressive, to my mind, is the idea that the king studies and is guided by God’s teachings and governs not merely by whim or expediency. The king is expected to be learned of Torah and faithful to the God of Israel and the values that God represents. What a concept!

Now, this isn’t the place to go over the history of Israel’s kingship. I invite you to read the Books of Kings for an introduction. Suffice it to say that some kings knew their Torah and were men of faith and some did not and were not. Some kings tolerated idol worship, and other kings cracked down on it. God approved of the latter while bringing the former to terrible ends.

In the United States, some prospective candidates for president in 2024 have already started to hint on their intent to run. I wonder what it would be like to hold them to the criteria of character implicit in this week’s Torah reading. Can we find any candidates for president who are loyal, humble, honest and clear-thinking? I continue to hold out hope. They have two years to convince us, at least.

Moreover, I wonder what will become of the winner once he or she takes office. What book of “Torah” will that person read and study? The Constitution? The Bible? Which Bible? The newspapers? Which newspapers? What set of values will guide our president, if any? We cannot know these things for sure. Indeed, what we learn from this week’s Torah portion is that even when we we’ve elected the one person in whom we have the most trust, we have no assurance that the person will govern as we had hoped he or she would. Maybe we should expect our nation’s leader to do as the Torah literally suggests: sit down, write out a copy of “Torah,” and keep it by his or her side every day while under oath.

Parashah Ponderings

Justice for Our Planet Shall We Pursue

Parashat Shoftim 5781 / פרשת שׁוֹפְטִים
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 

This week, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a summary of a report 6-years in the making, involving more than 200 authors whose work is derived from some 14,000 peer-reviewed studies related to the physical science of climate change. The full report is almost 4,000 pages long. The summary, however, is only 40 pages. 

I read about the report in Jewish Currents magazine, where I found an interview conducted by the magazine’s newsletter editor with a staff writer from The New Republic who covers climate policy. What I learned from the writer, Kate Aronoff, is that the information found in this new report is both horrifying and hopeful.

She says, “It’s not so much new information as a synthesis that allows us to say with confidence that climate is ‘unequivocally’ caused by human activity — mostly the burning of fossil fuels. While much of it isn’t new, the tone scientists, who tend to underplay things, take up in it — calling this ‘code red for humanity,’ for instance — should be a wake-up call.”

But, Aronoff says, the mainstream media outlets are boiling the 4,000 into “the most doom-filled headlines you can imagine. The big takeaway of the coverage has been that climate change is now irreversible, that we have passed the 1.5 Celsius degree temperature increase threshold..” She explains that while there is some basis for these claims in the report, these headlines don’t present the full picture. In fact, we’ve warmed the planet by about 1.1 degrees, which is very concerning, and there’s enough carbon in the atmosphere for that to to increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. BUT that hasn’t happened yet, in part because we have forests that absorb carbon from the atmosphere.”

Rather than read into the report the idea that we’ve passed a point of no-return, Aronoff  says, we should adopt the mindset that “there’s no point at which you can say that we might as well just give up. There’s plenty of  suffering that can be prevented.” She points to the fact that every 10th of a degree Celsius of warming “translates to tens of thousands of lives lost, so every little incremental step we can take to mitigate climate change matters a tremendous amount.”

Aronoff then goes on to list a number of policies which, if adopted and executed wisely, could keep things from getting “infinitely worse.” 

What Aronoff and the scientists behind the climate research are suggesting, I believe, is that we must all do our part to prevent things from getting infinitely worse by adopting new mindsets and modes of behavior and by getting involved in the political system. From my point of view, heading this call is a matter of environmental justice.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (or “Judges”), we read the words: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof — Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Eternal your God is giving you.” What does this mean? It means that for us to achieve the ideal of transforming the world into the malkhut Shadai — the kingdom of the Almighty — we must be committed to pursuing justice under all circumstances, in all places and for all time. Rashi, the medieval biblical commentator, says “consider what you do, and conduct yourselves in every judgment as if the blessed Holy One were standing before you.” The pursuit of justice includes enforcing our laws equitably and judging without prejudice. But it also means creating a world in which all human beings can survive and thrive, where the image of the Divine can shine forth from each unique soul.

In a world increasingly ravished by drought, wildfires, devastating flooding, warming waters, catastrophic storms, rising tides and rising temperatures, we must take seriously our tradition’s call to pursue justice for the natural world.

We see a hint of this imperative for environmental justice in the laws of warfare, that are also part of this week’s reading (Deut. 20:19): When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its fruit trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.” While the Torah does permit armies to cut down non-fruit-bearing trees for the construction of siegeworks, in general it prohibits the kind of deforestation that makes human life unsustainable. Fruit trees take years to bear fruit, and the Torah prohibits us from using the fruits for the first three years of a tree’s life. This wartime prohibition is a reminder of our dependency on the natural world for our very existence. If we destroy fruit trees, we might not be alive to eat the fruits of trees that we plant in their place. If we destroy our planet, the science is saying, at some point we won’t be able to repair it. And if we can’t establish a healthy balance between humanity’s needs and what is needed for the planet to sustain us, we will eventually perish and it will happen at the rate of tens of thousands per 1/10th of a degree Celsius, if not quicker. We already see how our friends and families in other parts of the world are suffering, not to mention what is happening in economically depressed countries who lack the medical resources to soften the health-related blows of climate change.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Let us do all in our power to secure justice for our planet and all God’s creatures.  Tzedek for ourselves. Tzedek for all people. Tzedek now. Tzedek always. Justice, justice shall we pursue.