Rabbi Reuven Stein
Our tradition tells us that every Torah portion has a general theme connecting all of its major points. The theme of Parshat Shoftim clearly is Jewish leadership.
Our tradition tells us that every Torah portion has a general theme connecting all of its major points. The theme of Parshat Shoftim clearly is Jewish leadership. The Torah portion begins by discussing judges and policemen, and continues with the roles of the Jewish king, the Kohanim (priests), the Levites, and the Jewish chaplain.
However, we find two sets of laws that don't initially seem to be in consonance with the Torah portion's theme, causing one to wonder why they are intertwined here amongst the laws dealing with leadership. The first passage in question is the law of the cities of refuge. These cities were designated for people who accidentally killed someone. The murderer is required to uproot himself and move to one of these cities, remaining in exile until the death of the High Priest. Our sages tell us that the High Priest is held accountable because he should have made sure that even accidental murders did not happen during his reign. The leadership must not pass the buck. The High Priest should have prayed and taught the people the value of a human life and the importance of safety. He should have created an atmosphere of caution and regard for human life. The laws of the accidental murderer teach us that one must take responsibility even for mistakes. The Torah also wants us to prevent vigilantism that can occur with close relatives taking revenge. Leadership must work to prevent situations where lawlessness can develop
The other set of laws intertwined with Jewish leadership is that of Eglah Arufah. This is a special ceremony that takes place when a dead body is found near a city. The elders and most righteous of the city's rabbis come outside of the city to the place where the body was found and declare that they had no hand in the murder. Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, asks: Why would we suspect the elders of taking part in the murder? He explains that the elders need to declare that they have responsibly administered the city and given the proper support to even strangers passing through. It means that they will not allow murderers to stay in our midst.
Leadership means taking responsibility. It means finding ways in which to prevent things from happening, rather than living in denial. These valuable lessons show us how the Torah expects Jewish leaders to act.
Rabbi Reuven Stein is the administrator of the Atlanta Kashruth Commission.
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