When the Torah tells us two things in practically the same breath,
we can be sure that they are very closely related. Yet sometimes the
connection is somewhat obscure, and we are completely dependent on
the guidance of the Talmud to enlighten us.
In this week’s Torah reading, we are instructed to appoint judges of
the highest integrity, people who are honest, upright and unwavering,
people who would never consider taking bribes or otherwise corrupting
the process of justice. Side by side with these laws is the prohibition
against planting an asheirah tree, a species commonly worshipped in
the pagan societies of the Near East.
What is the connection between these two apparently unrelated
The Talmud tells us that the appointment of an unworthy judge is
comparable to planting an asheirah tree.
Illuminating but not completely enlightening. The corruption of
justice and idolatrous practices are both unarguably very grave
transgressions, but how are they related to each other? What specific
kinship places them on a common ground?
The commentators explain that the asheirah tree has marvelous
natural beauty, as do all the other trees the Creator implanted in this
world. But through their idolatrous practices, people have transformed
this thing of pristine beauty into an abomination. Although the asheirah
tree still retains its enchanting exterior, its very essence has been
corrupted, and therefore, it is forbidden to plant such a tree.
The Torah compares people to “the trees in the field.” People are
also dominant and exceptionally beautiful fixtures on the natural
landscape of the world. Some of them, endowed with special talents
and abilities, are even more outstanding. They exude an aura of wisdom
and integrity that seem to make them ideal choices to serve as the
magistrates of society.
Beware, warns the Torah. Do not be taken in by exterior
appearances. This seemingly ideal candidate for judicial office may be
nothing more than an asheirah tree. If he is guilty of the slightest
bribery or any other subversion of perfect justice, he has become an
abomination, and all his cleverness, wisdom and charisma mean
A king was seeking a suitable candidate for a ministerial office
which had become vacant. He invited a number of promising
government officials to his palace for a conference on the pressing
problems facing that ministry. The most knowledge official would be
offered the post.
The king prepared a royal table for his guests, with the finest foods
and beverages and an assortment of exotic fruits which could not be
found anywhere else in the realm.
At the conference, one official in particular stood out among all the
rest. He was a highly personable man who spoke with eloquence,
wisdom and wit. His grasp of the issues and problems was exceptional,
and the solutions he offered were clever and insightful. After an hour, it
seemed a forgone conclusion that he would be chosen, but to
everyone’s surprise, the king chose another man.
The disappointed candidate approached the king. “Your majesty,
why was I passed over for the post? Am I not the most qualified by far?”
“Take out what you have in your right pocket,” said the king.
The man flushed crimson. He reached into his pocket and pulled
out a persimmon. “Your majesty, for such a minor matter I lost the
post?” he said. “It is nothing but a tiny fruit that I wanted to take home
to my family.”
“It is indeed a very minor thing,” said the king. “And if you had
asked, I would surely have given you a basketful to take home. But
when I saw you slip that persimmon into your pocket I knew I could
never trust you.”
In our own lives, we are all impressed by the glittering people we
encounter, people who sparkle with personality, wisdom, talent and
extraordinary accomplishment. But those are not necessarily the best
people. We wouldn’t buy a car without taking a good look under the
hood. In the same way, we should not invest admiration in these
glitterati without asking ourselves if there is true goodness behind the
façade, if there is kindness, humility and integrity. Those are the
qualities we should admire and emulate. Those are the qualities that will
make us better people.