Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Shof'tim 5761
August 25, 2001 6 Elul 5761
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz is a rabbinic fellow at The Jewish Theological Seminary.
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 the month of Elul -- a month in which we are encouraged to take a heshbon nefesh, an accounting of our souls. At its essence, the idea is that we look inward and become self-critical of ourselves and the year that has passed. This week's parashah, Parashat Shoftim gives us one definition of blessing in life that helps us evaluate 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 which delineates the protocol in a state of war. Deuteronomy 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" (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 would 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 which 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, sanctification, 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 thinks 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 encourages us (before risking our lives on behalf of others) that if we have begun any of these acts of kiddushin, we must endeavor to complete them. 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 Shoftim, 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 in our lives? 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 HaDin, the Day of Judgement. Only through deliberate thought and prior planning may we realize the kiddushin, sanctification, that can be a daily part of our lives.
With Wishes for a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz