Thursday, August 24, 2006

Shofetim - Kohanim in Strange Places

This week's Parasha, Shofetim, discusses several mitsvot that pertain to the structure of Jewish society and government in the land of Israel. Included in this category are laws related to judges, jurisprudence and the authority of the courts, the monarchy, prophetic leadership, and military campaigns.

A closer examination of the Parasha reveals a fascinating pattern. Kohanim (Jewish priests) make several appearances throughout Shofetim, oftentimes for reasons that are difficult to understand. A few examples will illustrate what I mean:

"If a matter of judgment is hidden from shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge who will be in those days, and you will seek, and they will tell you the matter of the judgment."

This mention of Kohanim is understandable, since a fundamental aspect of the priestly role is the teaching of Torah law. Similarly, the references to the gifts that are due to the Kohanim, and their exclusion from any inheritance in the land, are quite comprehensible. However, the following example is more difficult to explain:

"And it shall be, when he [the king] sits on his royal throne, he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah in a book, from before the priests, the Levites."

It should be obvious that all kosher Sifreh Torah are created equal. So why should the King specifically be commanded to copy from the Sefer Torah of the Kohanim, when any scroll should do? Two more examples of gratuitous employment of Kohanim can be identified in the Parasha. One is in the context of the army:

"And it shall be, when you draw close to battle, the priest shall approach and address the people. And he should say to them, 'Hear, O' Israel - You are approaching battle against your enemies today. Do not let your hearts soften; do not fear, panic or be broken in spirit before them. Because Hashem, your God, is the One Who goes out with you, to fight for you against your enemies and to save you."

Immediately after this verse, the Torah proceeds to describe the instructions delivered by the military officers to the soldiers. The question, of course, is - why must the Kohen get involved at all? Why can't the officers provide the men with the appropriate pep-talk?

A final instance is found in the context of the Eglah Arufa, the calf that is decapitated on the occasion of an unsolved homicide. After the elders of the closest city have performed the act of decapitation, we read:

"And the Kohanim, the sons of Levi, approach - for they are the ones Hashem, your God, has chosen to serve Him and to bless in the name of Hashem; and by they word should every dispute and plague be adjudicated...'Atone for your people Israel, that You have redeemed, and do not allow innocent blood to be shed amongst your people Israel'..."

Here again, we observe the Kohanim involved in a ritual that has little to do with their role as religious leaders. Although they are bidden to pronounce the prayer that concludes Parashat Shofetim, it is unclear why this prayer - in contradistinction to most others - must be recited by Kohanim and cannot be offered by the elders themselves.

Suffice it to say that Kohanim seem to be engaged in various aspects of Jewish communal life that lie outside of the bounds of their professional duties of Temple Service and Torah education. What is the reason that they are, so to speak, woven all throughout the fabric of Jewish society?

I would suggest that the dispersion of Kohanim throughout our Parasha is designed to teach us a fundamental lesson. Most communities are structured so as to satisfy the desires and interests of human beings, either individually or collectively. Since spirituality is only one of the many dimensions of the human personality, religion has a definite and circumscribed role within a given society. Even in countries where there is interplay between politics and religious doctrine, a constant tension exists between the two systems. Although the pragmatic, power-driven politician may join forces with the religious leader to accomplish a common goal, the fact remains that the values of the partners are fundamentally incompatible with one another.

Not so in the government of Israel as envisioned by the Torah. The entire Jewish people has a shared mission - to sanctify God's name in the world. Its political, military and social institutions must all be integrated with its spiritual purpose. The king of Israel is charged with the responsibility of studying and enforcing Torah law, not pursuing his own agenda of amassing wealth, women and power. The armies of Israel stand before God and prepare themselves to implement His will - war is not allowed to be used as an outlet of aggression or an expression of nationalistic egotism by the Jews. Finally, when the political leaders of Israel sin, they do not call a press conference and hire spin doctors to restore the public's confidence in them. Rather, they humble themselves before God, repent, and beseech Him for atonement.

The Kohanim, the religious teachers of the nation of Israel, bear the primary responsibility for the mitsvah of Kiddush Hashem on the communal level. It is their job to ensure that the Jewish people remain dedicated to the commandments and involved in the study of God's wisdom. It is their duty to inspire the members of Am Yisrael - its leaders and its laypersons - to draw closer to Hashem through learning and mitsvah performance, so that they achieve their objective of sanctifying Hashem's name in a consistent manner.

For this very reason, the Kohanim must have extensive contact with every department of the government of Israel. The King of Israel must consult with Kohanim to prepare his Torah scroll. The High Court of Israel should include members who are Kohanim. The soldiers of Israel must hear instructions directly from the mouth of a Kohen before engaging in any battle. When a murder occurs on the outskirts of a city, the elders of that city take responsibility for the tragedy and are forced to confront gaps in the spiritual leadership they have been providing. The Kohanim arrive at the scene, represent the elders in prayer and help them refocus their energies on the most basic aim of Torah politics - namely, increasing citizens' sensitivity to the value and sanctity of human life.

Simply stated, our Parasha emphasizes the uniqueness of the political institutions of Israel. Because the government of the Jewish people is designed to be a vehicle of Kiddush Hashem, every agency that makes up its structure - whether executive or legislative, military or judicial, local or national - must be fully aligned with that objective. The connection of these branches of government to the spiritual mission of Israel is accomplished through the involvement of the Kohanim, whom Hashem has designated to serve as His representatives, "for they are the ones Hashem, your God, has chosen to serve Him and to bless in the name of Hashem..."

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