Juxtapositions. The Talmud analyzes them and expounds upon them. After all, every word of the Torah is as important as the next, and the positioning of each law in the Heavenly ordained book bears a great symbolism if not halachic (legal) implication.
Perhaps that is the reason that our sages expounded upon a very interesting juxtaposition in this week’s portion.
This week’s parsha is named Shoftim – Judges. That is exactly what it begins dealing with. It commands us to appoint judges. They should be honest, upright and unwavering. It prohibits taking any form of bribery as it attests that even the most brilliant and pious of souls will be blinded and perverted by bribes. Conspicuously placed next to those laws is the prohibition of the planting of the asheira tree. The asheira tree appeared as any other tree, but it had another purpose. It was worshipped as an idol.
Those two sections adjoin. The sages comment that there is a stark comparison. “Anyone who appoints an unworthy justice is as if he planted the asheirah tree in his midst.”
The obvious question is: though both acts are terribly wrong, there must be a greater reason other than the fact that they both are wrong and immoral. What is the connection?
There was a period in the 1970’s when a group of rogues were smuggling valuables in Tefillin (phylactories) and other religious articles that would usually evade inspection; thus the thieves assumed their scheme would be successful. Often they would send these religious articles with unsuspecting pious Jews and asked to deliver them to certain locations near their final destinations.
When United States customs officials got wind of this scheme they asked a few observant agents to help crack the ring. In addition to preserving the sanctity of the religious items, the customs authority felt that Jewish religious agents would best be able to mete out knowing accomplices from unsuspecting participants who had been duped into thinking they were actually performing a mitzvah.
The Jewish custom agent in charge of the operation decided to confer with my grandfather, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky on this matter. Though his advice on how to break the ring remains confidential, he told me how he explained how the severity of the crime was compounded by its use of religious items.
“Smuggling diamonds in Tefillin,” he explained, “is equivalent to raising a white flag, approaching the enemy lines as if to surrender and then lobbing a grenade. That soldier has not only perpetrated a fraud on his battalion and the enemy; he has betrayed a symbol of civilization.
With one devious act, he has destroyed a trusted symbol for eternity – forever endangering the lives of countless soldiers for years to come.
“These thieves, by taking a sacrosanct symbol and using it as a vehicle for a crime have destroyed the eternal sanctity and symbolism of a sacred object. Their evil actions may cause irreparable damage to countless honest religious people. Those rogues must be stopped, by any means possible,” he exclaimed.
Rabbi Chaim Soleveitchik explained the comparison of the asheirah tree to the corrupt judge. An asheirah tree is a very deceiving object. It is as beautiful as any other tree in the world. However, man has turned its aesthetic beauty into a vehicle for blasphemy. “A judge,” Rabbi Chaim Soleveitchik explains, “has all those attributes. He may have an honest appearance, even a regal demeanor. In fact, he could have a long kapote and a flowing beard. His very image exudes traits that personify honesty, integrity, and morality. However if he is inherently dishonest he no better than a lovely tree whose sole purpose is to promote a heretical ritual of idolatry.”
They both may look pretty and could be used as a vehicle to promote G-d’s glory but in this case, they are not. In fact, quite the opposite. Those formerly beautiful objects now bring disgrace to the Creator.
And so, the Torah tells us this week that trees may have outer beauty, but cannot be classified unequivocally as being an ever-sounding testimony to Hashem’s glory. Likewise a judge whose demeanor may be noble, may be a source of deception who will bring disgrace on an entire nation. After all, as the saying almost goes, “you cannot book a judge by his cover!”
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
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The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.
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Books by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky: