Sign In Forgot Password
  • 		                                		                                <span class="slider_title">
		                                    Thinking Torah Blog		                                </span>

08/17/2023 05:00:13 PM


Rabbi Chelsea Feuchs

This week we turn to Parashat Shoftim, which derives its name from the Hebrew word for judges. Unsurprisingly, a central focus of this Torah portion is how to build a fair society governed by the rule of law. We read many verses here that align with our modern sensibilities: judges may not take bribes, the king is not above the law, and even in the heat of war we must not destroy the environment. If only leaders at home and around the world would follow these instructions! There are also many verses that are disturbing, such as those outlawing polytheistic practices on penalty of death. We may love the most famous line from this parashah—"Tzedek, tzedek tirdof Justice, justice shall you pursue!"—while admitting that we do not endorse every law thought to bring about justice in the ancient world. 

One instruction appears different from the others because it doesn't seem related to the project of creating a fair and lawful society. Knowing that the Israelites will need to engage in battle when they enter the Promised Land, Moses tells them how to form the right fighting force. He excuses a series of men from battle; those who built a new house but did not yet dedicate it, those who planted a new vineyard but did not yet harvest it, and those who contracted a marriage but did not yet move in with their wife. In all three cases, there is a concern that if such a man were to die in battle, someone else would swoop in, profit from his hard work, and jeopardize the continuation of his holdings and lineage (a particularly salient source of concern in the ancient world). But then Moses adds in one more exception, "The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, 'Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his'" (Deuteronomy 20:8). I was stunned reading this...all it took to get out of the ancient Israelite army was fear? 

Initially, this verse seemed to go against the themes of Parashat Shoftim, creating a carveout that some would take advantage of, distributing the risk of military service unfairly. But upon closer examination, it teaches quite an important lesson. The fearful and disheartened person is explicitly excused because their mindset could become contagious and stoke anxiety in others. We often move through the world thinking that our emotional states, and behaviors related to them, don't have a huge impact on others. If I was dismissive toward my brother because I was stressed, what does it really matter? If I forgot to wish my friend luck before her job interview because I got overwhelmed, it'll be fine. If I yelled at my child because I was tired, wont it be okay in the morning? We likely have relationships that are robust enough to handle some turbulence, with people who accept and love and forgive us when we are low. But we fool ourselves if we think that the way we treat others doesn't have a meaningful impact on them. As we enter the Jewish month of Elul and begin the spiritual work to prepare for the High Holy Days, let us remember that our feelings and actions are significant, and strive to treat others with kindness and fairness. 

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784