This parashah deals with the appointment of judges, kings, and
prophets, all of whom are charged with enforcing the mitzvot and
rebuking Bnei Yisrael for their failings. Additionally, the
parashah discusses many of the laws that come into play when the
nation goes out to war. All of these may be interpreted not only
on a straightforward halachic level, but also on the level of
"drush" / allegory. Specifically, they relate to the month of
Elul, in which this parashah is always read. This is because,
given the fact that the Torah is eternal, the Torah's laws of war
must be interpreted primarily in regard to spiritual battles in
generations in which there is no Jewish state governed by the
Torah's laws. (Ohr Gedalyahu: Elul 4)
Besides the many physical wars which the Jewish people have
been forced to wage, every Jew wages a constant spiritual war
against the yetzer hara / evil inclination. Never is this war
more heated than during Elul, when, in preparation for the Day of
Judgement on Rosh Hashanah, each person takes stock of his
actions and looks for ways in which to improve himself. These
spiritual wars share strategy with our physical battles. For
example, just as the Torah commands that in time of war we should
blow the shofar to awaken us to pray for G-d's mercy (see
Bemidbar 10:9 and Ibn Ezra there), so, too, during Elul we blow
the shofar to awaken ourselves from our spiritual slumber.
R' Yechezkel Levenstein z"l (Mashgiach in the Mir and Ponovezh
Yeshivot; died 1974) states (based on a Midrash) that just as a
person can sleep so deeply that he would not feel a surgeon's
blade, so the soul's sleep can be so complete that one does not
notice that the yetzer hara is destroying it. How can such a
person be awakened? For precisely this purpose Hashem gave us
prophets and spiritual leaders, whose rebuke can direct us on the
correct path. (Ohr Yechezkel)
"Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your cities."
The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni comments: "`You' and not the nations
of the world." What is this teaching?
R' Yehuda Modern z"l (see page 4) explains that this Midrash
alludes to the decree that would be enacted by the sages of 12th
century Europe (in the generation of Rashi's grandsons Rabbenu
Tam and Rashbam). Specifically, those sages decreed that no Jew
may lord over his brethren in any capacity, even if appointed by
a king, without the consent of those brethren. "Judges and
officers you shall appoint in all your cities." Rabbenu Tam and
his colleagues went so far as to decree excommunication and even
death on anyone who violated this ban. Why?
The answer, writes R' Modern, is that a leader capable of
winning the consensus of his Jewish brethren would presumably be
steeped in Torah learning and fear of Heaven and would lead with
the best interestsof his brethren at heart. Not so a self-
appointed leader or one appointed by a gentile king. [Even if
such a leader did mean well, without Torah learning and fear of
Heaven, he would not know what the Jews' best interests are.]
We read later in the parashah (17:15), "You (singular) shall
surely set a king over yourself." Why is the singular form used
here? R' Modern explains that when people get together to choose
a leader, each has his own interests in mind. What should be on
a person's mind, however, is the Torah. Chazal teach that when
the Jews camped at Sinai, they were united "as one man with one
heart." So, too, "You - singular, as one man with one heart,
united for the sake of the Torah - shall surely set a king over
In Eichah (2:9) we read, "Her king and officers are among the
nations, there is no Torah." Rashi comments: "There are no
teachers of Torah." Writes R' Modern: The verse, as understood
by Rashi, is complaining about the very problem noted above - the
prophet is mourning the fact that the Jewish people's king and
officers are chosen by the nations, and not through a process
that places emphasis on the Torah's teachings.
"They shall judge the people with righteous judgment."
Who will they judge if not "the people"? Those two words
appear to be superfluous.
R' Yehuda Gruenwald z"l (rabbi of Satu Mare, Romania; died
1921) explains: The Hebrew article before the word "people" -
"ett" - can also mean "with." The judges must judge "with" the
people, i.e., they must have people behind them who will enforce
their judgments. Similarly, regarding any community matter, the
leader must be able to count on members of the community to
support him, or he will accomplish nothing.
"Tzeddek, tzeddek / Righteousness, righteousness shall you
pursue, so that you will live." (16:20)
R' Chaim Yosef David Azulai z"l ("Chida"; 1724-1806) quotes R'
S. Primo z"l as follows: The Gemara teaches that a person who
gives charity with ulterior motives, for example, in order that
his sick child will be cured, is nevertheless considered to be a
perfect tzaddik. How, ask the commentaries, can this be
reconciled with our Sages statement that one should not perform
mitzvot in the hope of being rewarded (although he, of course,
will be)? Says R' Primo: The Gemara is referring to a case where
one has already fulfilled his obligation to give charity and now
he gives additional charity with an ulterior motive. Such a
person is not considered to be violating the Sages' teaching
about performing mitzvot with pure intentions.
This is alluded to in our verse: "Tzeddek, tzeddek /
Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue, so that you will
live." If you give tzedakah twice, then you may do it with the
intention that you (or someone else) will live.
Toward the end of this parashah we find some of the laws of
war, one of which is the prohibition against needlesslydestroying the environment. Beyond the plain meaning of those
verses (20:19-20), R' Eliyahu z"l (1720-1797; the "Vilna Gaon")
finds the following allegorical interpretation:
"When you will besiege a city for many days in order to fight
it" -- these are G-d's words to the yetzer hara (in its role as
Heavenly prosecutor). "[M]any days" refers to the days of Rosh
Hashana and Yom Kippur. Although they are only three days, they
seem like many because they are so difficult. On these days, theprosecutor's attack on Bnei Yisrael is the strongest.
"Do not destroy its trees by raising an ax against them" -- the
trees, i.e. those who support Torah scholars (see Mishlei 3:18)
are to be protected from the attribute of strict justice.
"For you will eat from it" -- the entire world including you,
the Heavenly prosecutor, exists only through the merit of the
Torah scholar, and in turn--
"Man is but a tree of the field" -- "Man", i.e. the Torah
scholar, is able to exist only because of the trees, i.e. those
who support Torah.
"Only that which you are certain is not a fruit tree" -- i.e.
one who does not support Torah study,
"That one you may destroy and cut off" -- "destroy" in This
World, and "cut off" from the Next World (G-d forbid).
The sacrifice, and consequently, the reward, of one who
supports Torah is so great that the Talmudic sage, Rav Pappa,
could not believe it possible, says the Gemara (Baba Batra 73b,
as explained by the Vilna Gaon). For this reason, we find that
when the tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun are mentioned in the
Torah, Zevulun usually comes first. While Yissachar produced
many Torah scholars, Zevulun was completely devoted to supporting
those sages. For that support, he is entitled to much of the
credit for the scholars' accomplishments. About people like
Zevulun the Mishnah says, "Who is brave? One who reins in his
desires." The people of Zevulun could have pursued many
luxuries, but they chose instead to support Torah.
(Be'ur Al Kamah Aggadot)
R' Yehuda Modern z"l
R' Yehuda Modern was among the most distinguished and respected
Hungarian rabbis of the nineteenth century, despite the fact that
he never held any rabbinic position. He was born in Pressburg
(today Bratislava, Slovakia) on 8 Tevet 5580 / 1819, and was
circumcised by that city's rabbi, the famed Chatam Sofer. Young
Yehuda was a child prodigy, and by the age of eight was attending
the Chatam Sofer's lectures - sitting on the great master's lap,
so beloved he was. As a teenager, his knowledge of the Gemara
was so thorough that he could state how many times the name of
the sage Rava appeared on each page of Tractate Bava Batra (the
longest Talmudic tractate).
At the age of 18, R' Modern decided to travel to a yeshiva
where he was not known, and he set out for Ungvar (today
Uzhgorod, Ukraine) to study in the yeshiva of R' Meir Asch.
Arriving there, and finding that R' Asch was not at home, R'
Modern decided to visit the great chassidic rebbe, R' Moshe
Teitelbaum (the "Yismach Moshe") in nearby Uhel (Satoraljaujhely,
Hungary). The Yismach Moshe was very impressed with the young
scholar and proposed him as a match for Chaya Rachel, the
daughter of R' Shmuel Kahana, one of the leading citizens of the
town of Sighet. R' Yehuda and Chaya Rachel were married that
year (1837), and R' Yehuda lived the rest of his life in Sighet
devoted entirely to Torah study and the performance of chessed.
In particular, he excelled in the mitzvah of visiting the sick,
often spending entire nights by their bedsides. At the same
time, he declined all offers of rabbinic positions and all other
honors, even the task of calling out the shofar sounds for the
person blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
R' Modern published several works, including a Torah
commentary, Pri Ha'etz, and a commentary on Tractate Gittin
entitled Zichron Shmuel in memory of his father-in-law. These
works were well received and revealed their author's greatness in
both the revealed and esoteric branches of the Torah, but R'
Modern later said that he regretted publishing them in his
lifetime. He believed that all of the suffering that he
experienced in his later life (whose nature is not recorded) was
as a punishment for publicizing his knowledge.
R' Modern passed away on Friday night, 4 Marcheshvan 5654 /
1893, and was buried in the Kahana family ohel in Sighet. (This
structure still exists. It is built into the cemetery wall and
has a window to the outside so that kohanim can pray at the
graves of those buried inside.) (Intro. to Pri Ha'eitz)