A FEELING FOR THE LAW.
The opening verses of the sidra (Deut. 16:18) seem almost unnecessary. They tell us to have judges and officers in all our gates.
Of course the gate in ancient times was where everything happened. That’s where people met one another, where commercial transactions took place, where community business was transacted, where the judges held their sessions. A reminder comes in the Aramaic prayer of “Yekum Purkan”, said on Shabbat, which prays for the “judges at the gates”. People who had a problem didn’t need to go through a bureaucratic rigmarole in order to get a day in court. They knew they would find a judicial facility at the city gate, and no-one needed to feel that legal delays would deny them justice for lengthy periods.
How can one suggest that such an important provision was almost unnecessary? Because such was the Jewish nature that no-one could imagine a community that had no judges. Did they need a law to lay down what was already instinctive? It’s not just that the administration of justice was one of the Seven Laws of the Sons of No’ach at the beginning of the Chumash. As SM Lehrman writes, “The Jew by nature is a law-abiding citizen”. Even without a verse in the Torah, our law-abiding instinct would have ensured that we had courts and a justice system. Even the antisemites know that law and justice are intrinsic to being Jewish.
PROPHETS LIKE YOURSELF.
The Torah portion tells us that God will raise up prophets from our midst (Deut. 18:18-19). The Hebrew wording is, “navi akim lahem… kamocha”, “I will raise up a prophet for them… like you”. “Like you” basically means, as we learn from Rashi, “a fellow-Israelite”. Rashbam understands “like you” as “like Moses” – i.e. a prophet who will teach the Torah and not mislead the people.
The Meshech Chochmah commentary adds a further element, that like Moses (called “the chief of the prophets”), any prophet appointed by God will be answerable to the Almighty. He will retain his own individuality, his own personality, his own capacity to comprehend and convey the message and recognise the needs of the people, but he will be a nobody without God. When Psalm 90 announces itself as a poem by Moses “the Man of God”, so any prophetic word or work will be valid only insofar as it clearly shows it is from God. The same must be said about a rabbi, any rabbi, in our own generation.
In early 20th century America there were controversies about whether a rabbi had what was called “freedom of the pulpit”. Actually in traditional Judaism the pulpit can never be free. A rabbi is bound by his pledge to God and the Torah. A community must recognise that a rabbi who does his own thing is no rabbi. That’s one of the reasons why Judaism could not accept the claims of Jesus when he said he had personal authority – “It has been told to you such and such, but I say unto you (something different)”.
REPTILES ON YOUR BACK.
Why do we blame our leaders when things go wrong?
Look at the end of the sidra. A dead man is found. No-one knows who has slain him. Officials measure the distance to the nearest town. Whatever town is nearest to the body, its elders have to wash their hands and say,
“Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. O God, absolve Your people Israel, and let not guilt for innocent blood remain among Your people Israel.”
The natural response of the reader is,
“But why do the elders need to be so apologetic? If a murder occurs, surely it is some criminal element amongst the people that is responsible. Why suspect the leaders?”
The commentators explain:
“Perhaps the man who was later found dead had asked for hospitality, and the elders refused to help. Perhaps he sought food, and they left him hungry. Perhaps he was in pain, and they did not want to hear his cry!”
The problem is so modern. Today one of the gravest challenges to society is the widespread disillusionment with leaders. We live in an instant information era; all that a leader does is seen, scrutinised and debated, almost before it happens. No-one can expect unquestioning applause or adulation just because they hold an office or bear a title. People power will not allow it. It makes life harder for leaders, but it makes for better leadership.
The Torah describes the way Moses consecrated Aaron and his sons to the priesthood. Taking drops of sacrificial blood, Moses “put it on the tip of Aaron’s right ear and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot” (Lev. 8:23). Of all the parts of the body, why were ear, hand and foot singled out for this ritual? The first answer that springs to mind is that the priest’s ears must hear the commands of the Almighty, his hands carry out the Divine will, and his feet walk in God’s ways.
Another insight is offered by the Baal Had’rash V’ha’iyyun who suggests that in putting drops of blood, the symbol of life and vitality, upon the ear, hand and foot, Moses was indicating the qualities required by a good leader. With an attentive ear, he must be aware of the needs of his people and generation. With an energetic hand, he must act in the people’s interests and dedicate himself to their welfare. And his foot, the representation of movement, must never stand still but ensure he moves along the path of personal and professional growth and progress.
People power increasingly imposes standards on leaders and insists on knowing why some of those in the public eye fall short of the appropriate standards. It also takes for granted that whatever goes wrong in society, the leader cannot be absolved from blame. True, it is often unfair to expect the leader to see everything and know how to fix it, but if all the leader can do is to throw up his or her hands in despair and look for excuses elsewhere, that’s not leadership.
Leadership, to adapt a rabbinic phrase, is a basket of reptiles on your back. You may not have put them there yourself, but you cannot merely wait for the basket to slide off of its own accord. Leadership requires that you use your ear, hand and foot to recognise problems and be capable of initiatives to find a solution.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.