Sunday, August 12, 2007

Parshat Shoftim (Rabbi Sedley)


This week's Torah reading contains the commandment to appoint a king over Israel. The king is to be not only the economic and military advisor and leader, but also is to set a spiritual and religious example to the nation. The Torah places extra prohibitions on a king, in order that he should not lead the rest of the nation astray. One of those extra commandments is to write himself an second Sefer Torah. The last of the 613 commandments (according to the order in which they appear in the Torah) is the instruction for each person to write themselves a Sefer Torah. As the Sefer HaChinuch states: We are commanded that each person should have a Sefer Torah for themselves. If he is able to write it by himself that is very praiseworthy, and if not he should hire someone to write it on his behalf. This is the meaning of the verse "Now write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the Children of Israel." (Deuteronomy 31; 19).
[Based on the explanation of the Rosh, many contemporary halachacists have written that this commandment is also fulfilled through purchasing Jewish books such as Chumashim and Siddurim. However, anyone who is in a position to write themselves a Sefer Torah could fulfil this commandment in its best form.]
One of the extra laws which applies only to the king is to write himself a Mishne Torah (ibid. (17; 18), which is translated literally as 'a repetition of this Torah'. Amongst the commentators there are three different explanations of this phrase, teaching us three necessary approaches to studying Torah, which we learn from the example that is to be set by the king.
Onkelos (the 5th century Aramaic translation of the Chumash) translates the phrase Mishne Torah as 'Patgeshen Oraita', meaning 'A Torah which is constantly repeated and spoken'. The key to observing the commandments is to constant review the laws, and be immersed in study day and night. This is both in order that none of the laws be forgotten, and more importantly, so that he not lose sight of the goal of Torah observance at any time. This is why the Torah adds the word 'all' (He will read it all the days of his life), which comes to include the nights as well as the days, in fulfilment of the dictum "This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth, and you shall meditate upon it day and night" (Joshua 1; 8).
Rambam (Hilchot Melachim chap. 3; 1) defines the Mitzvah further. He says that if the king already has a Torah which he inherited from his father, that one remains in his treasure house, and he only has to write himself one more Torah. This seems to be allegorically referring to the transmission of Torah, traditions and customs. A king should ideally have a solid foundation in the Torah which he has learnt from his parents, with which he grew up. Once that has become his inheritance, he can place that in the palace, and carry second Torah with him, one which he has written himself. This symbolises his own personal approach to Judaism, building on that which he has learnt from the previous generation. This Torah that he has written, however, is only valid if it is something which he carries with him constantly, and lives by at all times.
Rav Yonasan Eibschitz gives a further interpretation. He says that the two Torahs represent the revealed Torah and the hidden Torah. Wherever the king goes, he should have access to the Halacha and p'shat which are the open meanings of the Torah. However, the hidden secrets of the Torah, the Kabbalah and mysticism of Judaism, should only be studied in the palace, in private. Though actions should primarily follow the Halacha of the revealed Torah, it is important for the king to know that it is all ultimately based on the Kabbalah and other spiritual sources. Though the actions we perform are a key to living in the physical world, they also have a tremendous impact on the spiritual worlds, and have far reaching consequences.
Through total absorption in Torah, through basing anything new on that which has come before, and with an understanding of both hidden and revealed aspects of Torah, the king will be able to act as a role model for the rest of the nation. As the verse concludes (Deuteronomy 17; 19), It shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, in order that he can learn to fear the L-rd his G-d, to observe all these laws and statutes in order to fulfil them".

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