PARASHAH: Shof'tim
 Torah Teacher Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy
D'varim (Deuteronomy) 16:18-21:9

(Note: all quotations are taken from the Complete Jewish Bible, translation by David H. Stern,
Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., unless otherwise noted)

Let’s begin with the opening blessing for the Torah:

“Baruch atah YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-O’lam,
asher bachar banu m’kol ha-amim,
v’natan lanu eht Torah-to.
Baruch atah YHVH, noteyn ha-Torah.

(Blessed are you, O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,
you have selected us from among all the peoples,
and has given us your Torah.
Blessed are you, LORD, giver of the Torah.

"Having left its heavenly abode, it had to be accommodated in the modest cottages of human uncertainty and inadequacy.  This, in essence is the task of the Halakha.  The “humanization” of the word of God….”  This quote from “Lo b’shamayim hi (Not in Heaven)", The Nature and Function of Halakha, by Eliezer Berkovits, sets the tone for this week’s portion or parashah, Shoftim.

The parashah starts off with the phrase, “Shoftim veshotrim titen-lecha bechol-she'areycha asher Adonay Eloheycha noten lecha lishvateycha veshafetu et-ha'am mishpat tsedek.”  Following the normal procedures for naming a portion after its opening few words, we see why it is called Shoftim, or judges.  By naming it this, the tone is set to deal with the opening subject: justice.

The pursuit of justice in the land that HaShem gave to Avraham and his descendants was not just some novel concept; it was a mitzvah, a command.  Indeed the Hebrew word translated ‘pursue’, of verse 20, is an adequate picture of what the Torah was trying to get across to the people: pursue it, seek after it actively.  Why was this concept so important to the Holy One?  Because justice, being one of His many attributes, when properly understood, brought about the implementation of the right attitude needed for proper relationships.  The relationship between HaShem and man was important, but the relationship amongst themselves was equally important.  Justice is a pillar in the righteous community.  Quoting the Talmud, the ancient commentary on Torah, R. Simeon B. Gamaliel said, “Do not make mock of justice, for it is one of the three feet of the world.  Why?  For the Sages have taught, on three things the world rests: on justice, on truth, and on peace.  Know then full well that if you wrest judgement, you shake the world, for it is one of its pillars” (D'varim Rabbah 5.1).

Chapter 17 of this parashah talks about the details surrounding official, legal matters.  Of particular interest is the subject dealt with in verses 8-13.  To be sure, the sages of old understood this to be talking about the matter of halakha and the authority of what is known in rabbinical circles as “Oral Torah”.  From a cursory reading, it appears to be a valid teaching about establishing a governing body of legal authority based on the spoken opinion of the ‘judge’ of the day.  This is where the halakha gains its strength and application.  The term is roughly translated “the way in which to walk”.  The rabbis see in this passage an opportunity to establish the tradition of the Oral Torah.  As they see it, this passage instructs its readers “In accordance with the Torah they teach you, you are to carry out the judgement they render, not turning aside to the right or the left from the verdict they declare to you” (v.11).  Taking the verse in its most natural and literal sense, it does seem to validate the right for the rabbis to impose their judgements on all succeeding generations.  And to strengthen the suggested interpretation, a first century Rabbi by the name of Yeshua had this to say to his crowd, “The Torah-teachers and the P’rushim,” he said, “sit in the seat of Moshe.  So whatever they tell you, take care to do it.  But don’t do what they do, because they talk but don’t act!”  What are we to make of Yeshua’s comments?

According to translator David Stern, writing in his Jewish New Testament Commentary: “…sit in the seat of Moshe, exercising the power of “the cohen of judge in office at that time” (Deuteronomy 17:8-13), officially interpreting the Torah.  There are some who understand this verse to mean that, according to Yeshua, the Oral Torah, as expounded in Orthodox Judaism, is binding on Messianic Jews today.  I do not believe this, because I think Yeshua had already initiated a process transferring halakhic authority from the cohanim, judges and rabbis to the emissaries and later leaders of the Messianic Community” (p. 67).  I agree with this interpretation and commentary of the passage in Deuteronomy, as well as Yeshua’s own commentary on the matter.  A careful distinction needs to be made by the Jewish believer in Messiah, regarding matters of rabbinical authority (Oral Torah) and Torah issues as a whole.  This is especially true when, since most rabbis disagree with the authority of the B’rit Chadashah, the believer is faced with a choice.  As I see it, it all comes down to “Who has the authority to determine halakha in the life of a Messianic Jew?”  Space here does not permit me to deal with the matter in great detail, but suffice to say I understand the New Covenant to be non-supportive of the inspirational authority of the Oral Torah.  That is, authority vested from heaven concerning legal matters, as expounded in the Talmud.  The verses cited by the rabbis in our parashah just don’t seem to conform to the Torah as a whole.  In my opinion, evidence is lacking to support an authoritative Oral Torah.

The rest of the parashah goes on to explain matters involving a chosen king, additional priestly duties, the office of prophet, military advice, and finally, what to do in case of unknown deaths in the land.  I will not comment on all of these areas, but rather focus on only one: the prophet.

Moshe first describes the coming of a naviy (prophet) whom HaShem himself will raise up, a naviy similar to Moshe himself.  This gives us our first qualification of such an office: chosen by HaShem.  The promise is given that in his mouth will be the words of HaShem.  Accordingly, all the people are to listen to him.  Whoever doesn’t listen to the words, which are spoken in the name of HaShem, will answer directly to the Holy One.  This gives us the second qualification of a naviy: speaks in the name of HaShem.  Finally, Moshe tells the people that if the naviy speaks presumptuously, or if the prophecy of the naviy doesn’t come to pass, then you are to know that he is a false naviy, and that he must die.

According to the B’rit Chadashah, Yeshua did indeed fulfill this prophecy (see Matt. 11:3; possibly 21:11; Luke 7:16; possibly 24:19; John 1:21; 6:14; Acts 3:22; and 7:37).  Presumably, because messianic expectation ran very high in the first century, many people were open to the fact that Yeshua was indeed “the prophet”.  But non-Messianic Judaism, in what was most likely defensive theology against Yeshua, took another stance.  Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, a.k.a. RaSHI (1040-1105) says it means that HaShem will raise up a prophet in Moshe’s place, “and so on, from prophet to prophet.”  That is, the passage does not speak of only a single individual prophet to come, but of the TaNaKH’s many prophets, of whom Malachi was the last.  A well-known example of defensive theology is found in the 12th Century creed of Rabbi Moshe ben-Maimon, Maimonides, a.k.a. RaMBaM (1135-1204).  Reading from the Yigdal, “I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moshe Rabbinu [Moses our teacher], peace be unto him, was true, and that he was chief of the prophets [literally, “father to the prophets”], both of those who preceded him and those who came after him.”

Again quoting Stern at length, “Was Yeshua “a prophet like Moshe”?  Yes, and more.  A prophet speaks for God, which Yeshua did; but he also spoke as God.  He spoke what the Father gave him to say, as did all the prophets; but he and the Father are one (John 10:31).  Moshe explained the sacrificial system for atonement; Yeshua was the final sacrifice for sin, the eternally effective atonement.  Moshe established the system of cohanim, with his brother Aharon as the first cohen gadol of the Tabernacle; the resurrected Yeshua is the eternal cohen gadol in the heavenly Tabernacle that served as model for the earthly one (Hebrews 7-10).  At no point did Yeshua contradict what Moshe said; rather, he clarified and strengthened the Torah (Matt. 5:17-20), made its application plainer (Matt. 5:21-7:29), and sometimes himself was the application.” (JNTC p.231)

The nation as a whole failed to listen to everything that the “naviy” Yeshua had to say, as our parashah in chapter 18 verse 19 predicted some might.  But today, we don’t have to harden our hearts as they once did and still do to this very day.  To be sure, the Torah teaches that one day they will have to give an answer to Yeshua himself concerning their corporate rejection of him.  But the Torah also teaches that all day long HaShem has his arms outstretched to those who would listen to him and his Messiah.  Patiently he waits for us to listen to the words of the Prophet….  If you are Jewish, and without Messiah Yeshua today, I urge you to listen to the words of the Naviy today, “Yes, indeed!  I tell you it wasn’t Moshe who gave you the bread from heaven.  But my Father is giving you the genuine bread from heaven; for God’s bread is the one who comes down out of heaven and gives life to the world.”  They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread from now on.” Yeshua answered,“I am the bread which is life!  Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever trusts in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:32-35).

The closing blessing is as follows:

“Baruch atah YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-O’lam,
asher natan lanu Toraht-emet,
v’chay-yeh o’lam nata-b’tochenu.
Baruch atah YHVH, noteyn ha-Torah.

(Blessed are you O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,
you have given us your Torah of truth,
and has planted everlasting life within our midst.
Blessed are you, LORD, giver of the Torah.

“Shabbat Shalom!”