top of page


Moses instructs the people of Israel to appoint judges and law-enforcement officers in every city; "Justice, justice shall you pursue," he commands them, and you must administer it without corruption or favoritism. Crimes must be meticulously investigated and evidence thoroughly examined -- a minimum of two credible witnesses is required for conviction and punishment.

In every generation, says Moses, there will be those entrusted with the task of interpreting and applying the laws of the Torah. "According to the law that they will teach you, and the judgment they will instruct you, you shall do; you shall not turn away from the thing that they say to you, to the right nor to the left."

Shoftim also includes the prohibitions against idolatry and sorcery; laws governing the appointment and behaviour of a king; and guidelines for the creation of "cities of refuge" for the inadvertent murderer. Also set forth are many of the rules of war: the exemption from battle for one who has just built a home, planted a vineyard, married, or is "afraid and soft-hearted"; the requirement to offer terms of peace before attacking a city; the prohibition against wanton destruction of something of value, exemplified by the law that forbids the cutting down of a fruit tree when laying siege (in this context the Torah makes the famous statement "For man is a tree of the field").

The Parshah concludes with the law of Eglah Arufah - the special procedure to be followed when a person is killed by an unknown murderer and his body is found in a field - which underscores the responsibility of the community and its leaders not only for what they do but also for what they might have prevented from being done.


The Torah commands us to appoint a hierarchy of righteous judges in every city and province. On a literal level, this commandment refers to judges who adjudicate civil, criminal and religious issues. On a deeper level, however, this commandment, as well as its details, has great meaning for every one of us in terms of our personal lives. Let us examine one of this law's details:

"You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favouritism, and you shall not take a bribe."

It seems obvious why this commandment exists. But sometimes bribery is not so overt. Let’s relate this to today. What about drug companies providing lavish lunches to doctors and their staff in order to push their products? What about expense accounts and golfing with clients? Here’s an even bigger stretch – how about Air Miles? All of that is a form of bribery, is it not? The point is that bribery causes us to act in a way that we might not in its absence. Therefore, we must ensure that the judges we appoint are scrupulous, above reproach and totally honest.

Commenting on this verse, the great 19th century master, Chatam Sofer, says it relates to a verse from the prophet Hosea, "v'erastich li b'tzedek uv'mishpat, uv'chesed uv'rachamim," a line about God betrothing us with justice (tzedek), law (mishpat), kindness (chesed) and compassion (rachamim), which we say while putting on tefillin in the morning. According to a midrash, God provides the world with kindness and compassion, and we provide justice and law, thereby creating a balanced and holy alliance. It's a tangible and beautiful way of conceptualizing the covenant between divinity and humanity. Chatam Sofer goes on to say that "God gives us space to create homes, societies and communities, out of love and compassion, and it is up to us to create them with justice and righteousness, by creating laws that are fair and just for all members." This is the true meaning of tzedakah: not charity, but justice. And in a fascinating connection, another commentator, in the 20th century collection of teachings Likutei Yehudah, says that it is precisely for this reason that Shoftim follows last week's parshah, Re'eh, which mentions the mitzvah of tzedakah; without justice, there is no tzedakah, and without tzedakah, there is no justice. This is a powerful and profoundly relevant teaching for our time.

"Shoftim v'shotrim teeten l'cho b'chol sh'a'recha {Appoint for you judges and officers at all of your gates} [16:18]."

The Shla"h Hakodesh writes that a person has seven gates: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and a mouth. The way that these gates are used will either build or destroy the person. A person must appoint shoftim and shotrim to control the flow through these gates.

A few of you might remember Rabbi Greenbaum who came here from Israel a few years ago and spoke to us about Chanukah. He talks about the appointment of judges –

“The key step in coming back to G-d is when we "appoint judges and police" for OURSELVES -- in the gates of our own minds and souls. We must examine our traits, activities and behaviour and consider carefully whether they accord with G-d's Torah and how they could be improved. Then we must find ways to "police" ourselves so as to enforce our good resolutions and carry them out, taking the next steps forward to greater holiness in all the different areas of our lives.”

The Asherah. “Do not plant for yourself an Asherah or any other tree near the altar that you will make yourselves for God. Do not erect a sacred pillar, since this is something that God hates”.

The Talmud tells us the Asherah was a beautiful tree which was so enchanting that people used to worship it. There was something attractive and exciting about an asherah. Worship of the Asherah was very common in ancient Canaan, and Jews were often enticed into it. The Torah warns against it several times.

Judaism is replete with tree imagery. God spoke first to Moses from a bush, the Torah itself is likened to a 'tree of life.' But the injunction to not plant a tree near the altar or a place of worship is to ensure that observers (and participants) not confuse our worship of God with the worship of nature.

The word asherah refers to a sacred tree or pole that stood near shrines to honour the mother-goddess Asherah. In the Book of Judges, the Israelite judge Gideon orders an Asherah pole next to an altar to Baal to be cut down, and the wood used for a burnt offering.

Asherah may mean a living tree or grove of trees and therefore in some contexts mean a shrine. These uses have confused Biblical translators. Many older translations render Asherah as 'grove'. There is still disagreement among scholars as to the extent to which Asherah (or various goddesses classed as Asherahs) was/were worshipped in Israel and Judah and the extent to which such a goddess or class of goddesses is identical to the etomology of the goddess Athirat/Ashratu.

This is not the only place in Shoftim where trees are imbued with powerful qualities. Later in the portion we read that: When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed… (Deuteronomy 20:19-20) From this excerpt comes the famous concept of Bal Tashkhit, "do not destroy".

The Torah teaches that only trees that don't provide food can be cut down and used in a siege. The concept of Bal Tashkhit derived from this verse has been used as the basis for environmental teachings in Judaism.

Much has been written about Deuteronomy 20:19 as the basis of a prohibition against wanton destruction, but what about the use of nature as opposed to its destruction? Do the two different warnings about trees in the parsha send a mixed message? Deuteronomy 20:19 emphasizes the importance of trees and raises our awareness to the role of nature in our lives. Deuteronomy 16:21-22 teaches us not to turn our compassion and commitment to environmentalism into religious fanaticism. As in all else, we must find the sustainable, moral balance. We need to stand back; otherwise we can't see the forest for the trees, (Sorry, couldn't resist). This leads us to a new understanding of yet another famous verse in our portion:

Tsedek tsedek tirdof, justice justice shall you pursue. (Deuteronomy 16:20) Why say justice twice? Well, stylistically it is emphatic; but the heart of the matter here is the pursuit of justice: Never stop striving for the moral goal. This is the essential task of the Jewish soul, nourished and sustained by our tree of life, guiding us towards the right balance in all questions including our relationship to and our place within nature.

Eglah Arufah

The principle behind the law of Eglah Arufah is that a person is also responsible for what occurs outside of the area where he is fully in control. When a murdered traveler is found out in the field, the elders of the nearest city must go out there and bring the Eglah Arufah to atone for the crime, although it occurred "outside of their jurisdiction"; for it was nevertheless their responsibility to send the traveler off with adequate provision and protection. The Lubavitcher Rebbe says, “The same applies on the personal level in all areas of life. A person never has the right to say, "This is outside of my element. I have no obligation to deal with this." If it is something that, by Divine Providence, one has been made aware of, that means that there is something one can do to positively influence the end result.”

FROM THE CHASSIDIC MASTERS – Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe ZL

For man is a tree of the field

The tree's primary components are: the roots, which anchor it to the ground and supply it with water and other nutrients; the trunk, branches and leaves which comprise its body; and the fruit which contain the seeds by which the tree reproduces itself.

The spiritual life of man also includes roots, a body, and fruit. The roots represent faith, our source of nurture and perseverance. The trunk, branches and leaves are the body of our spiritual lives -- our intellectual, emotional and practical achievements. The fruit is our power of spiritual procreation -- the power to influence others, to plant a seed in a fellow human being and see it sprout, grow and bear fruit.

Roots and Body

The roots are the least glamorous of the tree’s parts, and the most crucial. Buried underground, virtually invisible, they possess neither the majesty of the tree's body, the colorfulness of its leaves nor the tastiness of its fruit. But without roots, a tree cannot survive.

Furthermore, the roots must keep pace with the body: if the trunk and leaves of a tree grow and spread without a proportional increase in its roots, the tree will collapse under its own weight. On the other hand, a profusion of roots makes for a healthier, stronger tree, even if it has a meager trunk and few branches, leaves and fruit. And if the roots are sound, the tree will rejuvenate itself if its body is damaged or its branch cut off.

Faith is the least glamorous of our spiritual faculties. Characterized by a simple conviction and commitment to one's Source, it lacks the sophistication of the intellect, the vivid color of the emotions, or the sense of satisfaction that comes from deed. And faith is buried underground, its true extent concealed from others and even from ourselves.

Yet our faith, our supra-rational commitment to G-d, is the foundation of our entire tree. From it stems the trunk of our understanding, from which branch out our feelings, motivations and deeds. And while the body of the tree also provides some of its spiritual nurture, the bulk of our spiritual sustenance derives from its roots, from our faith in and commitment to our Creator.

A soul might grow a majestic trunk, numerous and wide-spreading branches, beautiful leaves and lush fruit. But these must be equaled, indeed surpassed, by its roots. Above the surface, there might be much wisdom, profundity of feeling, abundant experience, copious achievement and many disciples; but if these are not grounded and vitalized by an even greater faith and commitment, it is a tree without foundation, a tree doomed to collapse under its own weight.

On the other hand, a life might be blessed with only sparse knowledge, meager feeling and experience, scant achievement and little fruit. But if its roots are extensive and deep, it is a healthy tree: a tree fully in possession of what it does have; a tree with the capacity to recover from the setbacks of life; a tree with the potential to eventually grow and develop into a loftier, more beautiful and fruitful tree.

Fruit and Seed

The tree desires to reproduce, to spread its seeds far and wide so that they take root in diverse and distant places. But the tree's reach is limited to the extent of its own branches. It must therefore seek out other, more mobile couriers to transport its seeds.

So, the tree produces fruit, in which its seeds are enveloped by tasty, colorful, sweet-smelling fibers and juices. The seeds themselves would not rouse the interest of animals and men; but with their attractive packaging, they have no shortage of customers who, after consuming the external fruit, deposit the seeds in those diverse and distant places where the tree wants to plant its seeds.

When we communicate with others, we employ many devices to make our message attractive. We buttress it with intellectual sophistication, steep it in emotional sauce, dress it in colorful words and images. But we should bear in mind that this is only the packaging -- the fruit that contains the seed. The seed itself is essentially tasteless -- the only way that we can truly impact others is by conveying our own simple faith in what we are telling them, our own simple commitment to what we are espousing.

If the seed is there, our message will take root in their minds and hearts, and our own vision will be grafted into theirs. But if there is no seed, there will be no progeny to our effort, however tasty our fruit might be.

bottom of page