Parashat Shof'tim

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
August 22, 2009 / 2 Elul 5769

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS

What constitutes a life well-lived, a life of blessing, a life lived to its fullest? With this week marking Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of a new month, we pray for God to renew our lives in the coming month: "Grant us a long life, a peaceful life with goodness and blessing, sustenance and physical vitality, a life informed by purity and piety . . . a life of abundance and honor, a life embracing piety and love of Torah, a life in which our heart's desires for goodness will be fulfilled" (Birkat HaHodesh). This Rosh Hodesh offers us a particularly auspicious moment to dwell upon this question of a life well-lived, for this week marks the beginning of Elul—a month in which we are encouraged to take a heshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of our souls. At its essence, this idea demands that we look inward and become critical of ourselves and the year that has passed. This week's parashah, Shof'tim, gives us one definition of a life of blessing that we can use in evaluating where we have come from and where we are going.

This description of a life well-lived, ironically, comes at a point in the parashah that delineates the protocol in a state of war. Deuteronomy chapter 20 relates, "Before you join battle, the priest shall come forward and address the troops. He shall say to them, 'Hear O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not fear, panic, or dread them. For it is the Lord your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory'" (Deuteronomy 20:2–4). The instruction continues, "Then the officials shall address the troops as follows: Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her" (Deuteronomy 20:5–7). In a later biblical book, the prophet Jeremiah echoes the implicit message of Deuteronomy in declaring, "Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper" (Jeremiah 29:4–7).

Why does the Torah choose these three aspects as the definition of a blessed life? I propose that each of these facets is interwoven with the concept of kiddushin (sanctification). The sanctification of place, time, and people. To build one's home is to sanctify place, to aspire toward building a mikdash me'at, a sanctuary in miniature. After the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis reappropriated rituals that revolved around the inner sanctum of the Temple and endowed the home of each Israelite with greater meaning. And so the Rabbis state explicitly that when the Temple stood, it was the altar that brought about atonement. Now that the Temple no longer stands, it is one's table that brings about repentance. Merely by having guests to one's home on Shabbat and speaking words of Torah, one effects atonement. The home then becomes the sacred inner sanctum of the Temple. Second, our passage speaks of harvesting one's vineyard. Every sacred time in the tradition is marked by kiddush, the sanctification of the day over a cup of wine. And so by planting a vineyard, one makes a commitment to being a partner with God in this act of sanctifying time. To ultimately taste of the fruit of one's work in the moment of celebrating Shabbat or festival is a true symbol of blessing and holiness—certainly one that is not to be taken for granted. Finally, the Torah alludes to the act of kiddushin between two individuals. For it is through this act that two individuals stand under a huppah (the symbol of the home they will build together) and declare their uniqueness to each other. The potential for godliness endows the moment as the couple think of promises that the future holds for them in building a family together. The concern for exclusivity and loyalty ("lest another marry her") is part of kiddushin—two people being set aside for each other.

The Torah's primary concern is that of realization and completion. Acts of holiness and sanctification are to be completed. The Torah commands that, if we have begun any of these acts of kiddushin, then we must endeavor to complete them before risking our lives on behalf of others. We must choose life, but we must choose a life that is endowed with a recognition of holiness and wholeness.

The confluence of Rosh Hodesh Elul and Parashat Shof'tim gives us a precious occasion to turn inward and think about how we ourselves define a life of blessing and a life well-lived. How is it that we seek wholeness in our lives? Are we actively seeking holiness? Have we dedicated homes, planted vineyards, and built relationships that speak to the best of Jewish values and our truest selves? What tasks have we completed that have brought a sense of kiddushin into this world? And what have we yet to complete that may sanctify this world? Do we reach out to feel God's Presence? Or do we turn away, ignoring God's Presence and our own potential for holiness? Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that Judaism is about rediscovering and hearing the existential questions that God asks of us each day. Let this be an opportunity for us to reflect deeply and create personal visions in the month leading up to Yom ha-Din, the Day of Judgment. Only through deliberate thought and prior planning may we realize the kiddushin, sanctification, that can be a daily part of our lives.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.