Shoftim: The Value of Life


eliyahu safranBy Rabbi Eliyahu Safran   

“…we’re more protected from a bad tuna fish sandwich than a nuclear bomb…”

– Jackie Mason (commenting on the Iran nuclear agreement)

Man is created “in the image of God” and, therefore, possesses inherent dignity and worth.  The rabbis teach that this inherent worth is the reason that man was created as an individual and not in the aggregate.  That is, God created Adam and Eve, not Adam-Eve.   Perhaps more significantly, by beginning the story of man with Adam and Eve rather than with Abraham and the beginning of the Jewish people, the Torah is making clear that every person, not only Jews, is worthy of this same dignity and respect, having descended from the same two individuals.

We affirm this principle consistently in our rituals and practices. Our practices make clear that the value of the community is dependent on the value of the individual; that the value of the many depends on the value of the one.

But the world is forever challenging our Jewish principle and practices.  We live in a brutal, impersonal world, one in which some governments, through their promotion of terror, seek to undermine the safety and security of good people.  They seek to undermine the value of all by diminishing the value of the few.

We are created as individuals but it is not enough to only be an individual.  We require both individuality and union to live a safe and meaningful life.   That said, it is within the context of the community that the importance of the individual is most vivid.

Take, for example, the minyan.  Ten individuals.  One group.  The yid is both an individual and at the same time fully part of a larger collective.  One individual, singular and exclusive among ten other singular and exclusive “ones”.

Should one yidele be absent, the minyan cannot address God in full glory; we may not recite any davar sh’bekdusha.

“When a corpse is found fallen in the field in the land God is giving you to occupy, and it is not known who the murderer is. Your elders and judges must go out and measure … The elders shall speak up and say, ‘Our hands have not spilled this blood, and our eyes have not witnessed it.’”

The Talmud seems aghast that we would require a declaration from our elders that they had not “spilled blood.”  Sadly, our own experience has taught us that it is possible to have community and spiritual leaders who lose their way, only to commit trespasses as hurtful and grievous as can be imagined.  In short, our own experience has taught us that such a declaration is anything but ludicrous.

How are these “errant” individuals kept in check?  Only by the group and, more specifically, by the leaders of the group.  It is incumbent on our elders to guarantee that such a person not be allowed to “roam” at will.  Indeed, the Talmud’s reading is that the elders declared that they did not simply allow the stranger to leave without food or escort, adding that if one accompanies a visitor daled amos out of the city, he will not be hurt or injured – eino nizok – and whoever does not accompany him is as if he murdered him.

Sforno has a different reading of this passage.  Sforno teaches that what the elders meant to say was that they did not permit a known murderer to roam the land.  That by their declaration, the elders are proclaiming that no individual, no murderous individual, should be left to roam the land.

Those entrusted with guarding the community, the elders, must watch over the community and make sure such an individual cannot do harm.  Certainly this explanation should resonate for us.  How often have we, in our desire to show mercy, learned of a paroled criminal who has committed a terrible crime upon his release from prison?  Such an act is not a flaw in our mercy but in the system by which the criminal is accompanied!

Sforno’s explanation is even more powerful when, rather than local elders and community/governmental leaders, we apply the same principle to countries.  Certainly, the same lessons of morality and conduct that governs our individual behavior must hold true when applied to our larger communities.

It is in this context that the recent “agreement” with Iran bears special scrutiny.  Here we see the world “elders”, the leaders of the so-called civilized entities, engaging a blood-thirsty and destructive player on the world stage, allowing – no, inviting – it to roam freely!  Iran, whose bloody hands have stained every corner of the world, is being invited to roam free.

Must not this “agreement” be evaluated by these terms?

The community of nations is inviting this murdering nation to roam free once again, without the tight constraints the current sanctions have imposed upon it.  As a result, the community of nations will be at greater risk but not only the “community” but the individual nations, particularly Israel.

A community of nations that does not react strongly and expeditiously to monstrous acts – rather than reward them with agreements and honor – is a community of nations whose leadership has grown callous and oblivious to the fate of the individual.  When the world allows a rogue nation, a nation dedicated to terrorism and destruction, to be treated as equals with legitimate governments we must fear that the moral bonds that have defined meaningful community and governments have lost hold.

So, we are taught that the stranger must not be allowed to roam freely.  But, as some have argued with this agreement, how far can the elders, the nations, realistically be expected to accompany him?  Where must he go so as not to be considered a murderer?  Daled amos?  Fine.  Does he need to travel with the stranger to the stranger’s destination?

If the stranger is a predator, yes!

When it is clear that the stranger (Iran) is dedicated to murder and destruction, to the very end!

The Maharal explains that in any situation where the individual might be vulnerable and unprotected we must continue.  What Chazal in the Talmud are emphasizing is leaders are guilty if we do not accompany him daled amos!  Leaders must accompany him to show that an individual on the road is not alone and separated from the community, vulnerable.  Quite the opposite.  The leaders must show that individual that he is inseparable from the k’lal.  The message from elders to individuals must always be, “We’ve got your back!”

Is that what the nations are communicating in the “deal”?  No.  Here we see the world allowing for Israel to simply go forward on its own.  No one, not America, not Europe, not Russia or China, is willing to accompany Israel daled amos even as the Iran threat grows more concrete.  Even as loophole after loophole in this “agreement” is exposed, where are the leaders to stand up and declare, “We will accompany Israel”? President Obama confirms this when he says,”Every nation in the world that has commented publicly, with the exception of the Israeli government, has expressed support.”

As this importance of the individual finds its expression in our relationships with all people, how much more is this lesson within the Jewish community itself!  Certainly, it is intrinsic to the lessons of Shoftim. Parashat Shoftim begins with the words: Shoftim veshotrim titen lecha” – judges and bailiffs shall you appoint in all of your gates.”  The emphasis is on the singular.  Lecha.  For you.  Only when the rights and liberties of individuals are protected and secured do the judges become legitimate leaders of a Jewish society.

The Likutei Yehuda points out that genuine and authentic leadership represented by the shoftim follows the theme of the festivals (at the end of Re’eh) which incorporates the concern for the underpriv­ileged; the orphan, widow and ger.  This is no mere coincidence.  Wherever the Torah speaks of mishpat, it simultaneously teaches about tzedakah.  There can be no true and moral justice or meaningful leadership without concurrent concern for the individual, particularly for the individual whose life, safety, and security would otherwise not be guaranteed.

The Rambam writes in the second chapter of Hilchot Teshuva (2), “Since the scapegoat, sair hamishtaleach, was atonement for all Israel, the High Priest made confession over it in the name of all Israel, as it is said “and he shall confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel.”

Rav Soloveitchik explains that since the sair is a korban tzibur, the atonement which it attains is a collective one.  The individual is not forgiven directly but through the atonement granted to the tzibur as a whole, and each individual Jew partakes of this atonement as a member of the klal. Each Jew is granted atonement on Yom Kippur as an individual, and indirect atonement through the channel of the general kaparah granted to the klal.

On Yom Kippur we pray, Melekh mochail ve’ solaiach la’avonotainu, God who forgives our sins as individuals; vla’avonot amo bait yisroel – and the sins of the house of Israel.  A collective.

To be a member of the Jewish community means to never lose a sense of individuality, or of the value of the individual.  It means to find the balance between “I” and “we”. The Jewish community, the tzibur, is not simply a gathering of individuals, lost in the relentlessness of time.  It is wholeness, a mysterious singularity to which every single Jew belongs.

We cry out for the community of nations to recognize the vulnerability of the “one”, of Israel.  Can we not also cry out for the individuals in our community who need to feel that they are truly embraced by the k’lal?

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