As a regular reader of local, national and world news via my daily paper and electronic information portals, I can’t help but notice the recurring theme of good and evil, inextricably intertwined in every story. For the last decade, however, it seems that these themes have shifted out of balance in favor of harsh judgment of and by governments, corporations, pundits, political action organizations and individuals at the mercy of the those four.
With the distraction of information glut in our society and the global extension of it, it is temptingly easy to lose focus on core issues of human decency. The need for random acts of kindness, as many bumper stickers remind us, is a symptom of our condition, but in itself, not the solution either. Moses and those who interpreted his writings understood and anticipated this problem and gave us Shoftim, this week’s parashah which defines judgment and informs its implementation.
Of course, you can argue, we live in a different world now and the Torah addresses archaic values and political events of the far past. But careful observation reminds us that the more the world changes, the more we stay the same…
Parashah Shoftim is traditionally read early in the Hebrew month of Elul as the Jewish New Year and cycle of High Holidays begins. In the calendar, Elul precedes the month of Tishrei when judgment for our deeds of the previous year is rendered. At this time we express our wishes to retain life in good health that we may continue to perform mitzvot or good deeds. Though many powerful ideas are presented in this parashah, I purposely chose the most memorable quotation pertaining to justice for this interpretation. At first reading, this dramatic statement seems simple and straightforward, but just as the layers of an onion are peeled back to reveal the strength at its core; many subtle, yet powerful corollaries emerge from this commandment. The images on the first page reflect a commentary in the Talmud 5 and a further interpretation by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) in the Tanya 6 regarding how a negative event can be rendered positive upon consideration.
In A Balance Of Powers, one of the illustrations for this parashah, the key players in the process of judgment include the prophet, standing to the left of the Shekhinah. His words, transmitted from God are associated with present and future world events. Both my prophet and the artifact shadowed behind him are modeled after Ezekiel and his well-known mystical vision, experienced during the Babylonian Exile in 593 BCE.
To the right of the Shekhinah is the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) wearing his ceremonial garments. He is shown holding a small model of a Levitical city of refuge (described in the notes to Parashah Ma’asei in the Book of Numbers). These properties were given to his tribe of Levi instead of farmland so that their designated roles as Torah scholars and teachers of the Israelites could be performed without domestic distractions. Finally, reprising her role in Bereshith (Genesis, Parashah Noah) where she represents the qualities of justice and mercy, the Shekhinah appears here with a set of scales to extend the metaphor. The fire in the left pan surrounds the Hebrew letter ‘tzadee’ that begins the word ‘tzedek’ for justice. In the right pan rests the Hebrew letter ‘resh’ for ‘rachamim’ or mercy with a dove holding a lily. The dove, although it is the familiar symbol of peace also addresses the quietude needed for objective decisions. The lily was chosen for its association with purity and for its six petals shaped in the form of a six-pointed star. In Hebrew it is called ‘shoshan’, from the root word ‘shesh’ or the number six.
The full illustration and commentary for this parashah may be found in Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary on pages 118-119 and 181-182 respectively. If you would like a signed copy, you may email me at: email@example.com. The book is also available worldwide from most online booksellers as well as at these links:
Questions? Comments? Suggestions? All are welcome.