Is There Spiritual Guidance Within Our Legal System? Part I
The Hidden Meaning Behind The List Of Laws In Deuteronomy
If the entire book of Deuteronomy is supposed to be Moshe's rousing speech before the nation enters Israel, how can we understand the mundane text of Parshat Shoftim? Instead of inspiration, we hear law after law of seemingly trivial matters – witnesses, legalities, land boundaries. What is this long list of laws doing in the middle of this book, that is supposedly Moshe’s inspirational speech?
Welcome to Parshat Shoftim.
Compared to the other five books of Torah, Deuteronomy is a confusing book. Genesis is a story. Exodus, Numbers, they largely continue that storyline. Leviticus, as we discussed, is a digression from the story, but also gives us the legal ramifications of living together with God in the midst of the camp. What about Deuteronomy?
Week after week, here on the Parsha Experiment, we tried to convince you that Deuteronomy is Moshe's speech, his rousing and inspiring address before Israel enters the land.
Except, Parshat Shoftim is anything but a speech.
Mishneh Torah: Why Is Deuteronomy Called the Second Law?Instead we hear law after law: appoint judges for yourselves. You must do justice by the testimony of two or three witnesses, no less. Set up cities of refuge for the accidental murderer, and don't move the boundary marker of your neighbor's property. What is this long list of laws doing in the middle of this book, that is supposedly Moshe's inspirational speech?
And these laws aren't confined to Parshat Shoftim. This list of laws actually began last parsha in Re'eh. Remember? We talked about destroying avodah zarah? God's special place, and the Levite, and the laws of meat and blood? And they don't end in our parsha either, they keep going through next week's parsha, Ki Teitzei, and into Ki Tavo.
In fact, of the 34 chapters in Deuteronomy, chapters 12 through 26 are all just a bunch of laws, no speech! Chazal pick up on this in their name for this book – Mishneh Torah which means "2nd law," or "Deuteronomy" in fancy English – because this book has this enormous legal section!
So which is it? Is it a speech? Is it laws? And how do we read this slightly boring legal section as a whole, instead of: take a look at this random law, and now here's this other law?
Let's try and bring these laws to life, this week on The Parsha Experiment.
Hi, I'm Imu Shalev and welcome to the Parsha Experiment. This week is Part 1 of a two-part series focusing on trying to make sense of the long list of laws in Deuteronomy.
Understanding the List of Laws in DeuteronomyRight before this giant legal section, we hear Moses describe a strange ritual. In chapter 11, Moses says: רְאֵ֗ה אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה – behold, I set before you on this day, a blessing and a curse. God gives you the blessing if you follow the commandments, and He curses you if you stray from the path that He set before you.
Okay, so we have the conditions for the blessings and curse, but what's the actual blessing? Do you all merit long life? Maybe everyone gets a lifetime supply of Ahava Dead Sea products? Seemingly, the text doesn't say.
Instead, it continues and says, when you get to the land, וְנָתַתָּ֤ה אֶת־הַבְּרָכָה֙ עַל־הַ֣ר גְּרִזִ֔ים וְאֶת־הַקְּלָלָ֖ה עַל־הַ֥ר עֵיבָֽל – you do this ritual, where you give the blessings on these mountains, and the text tells us where the mountains are – across the Jordan, toward the setting of the sun, in Canaan, across from Gilgal near Elonei Moreh – but not a trace of what the blessing or the curse actually is.
Now, when I read these verses, I felt like I could've sworn I heard this somewhere before: the ritual where the nation stands on Har Grizim and Har Eival – something about someone standing in the valley and reading a list of blessings and people say amen, and the curses, and they say amen. And I'm pretty sure there was a whole list of what those blessings and curses actually are. But I felt kinda crazy, because none of that is present in our text except the most vague description of this ritual.
But, wouldn't you know, much much later in Deuteronomy, all the way in chapter 27, Moses starts to describe this blessings and curses event and goes into all the details: "וַיְצַ֤ו מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא - אֵ֠לֶּה יַֽעַמְד֞וּ לְבָרֵ֤ךְ אֶת־הָעָם֙ עַל־הַ֣ר גְּרִזִ֔ים בְּעָבְרְכֶ֖ם אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן – these are the tribes that will bless the people on Mount Grizim, and these are the tribes that will stand for the curse on Mount Eival. And the Levites will proclaim "Cursed are those who curse their father and mother" and the people will answer amen; and the text goes on to list all of the things you will be cursed for, and all the terrible things that will happen to you, and all of the wonderful blessings and good things that will happen to you.
What is going on here?! Why are we repeating this event? Why doesn't the Torah put the in-depth description of the blessings and curses in Chapter 11 way back where it started talking about it?
But what if the Torah isn't actually repeating this event about the blessings and the curses? What if Moses begins the description back in Chapter 11 and ends his description in Chapter 27, and what happens in the middle isn't a giant digression, it's all part of the same, very long, story?
Let me show you what I mean: In chapter 11, when Moses first describes how the blessings will come to those who keep the laws, and the curses to those who stray, Moses ends by encouraging the people: וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֣ם לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת אֵ֥ת כָּל־הַֽחֻקִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם – and you shall observe all the laws and statutes that I place before you today. Seemingly, Moses is saying that the blessing and curse is contingent on how well you follow the laws.
Which laws? Take a look at the very next verse: " אֵ֠לֶּה הַֽחֻקִּ֣ים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֮ – these are the laws and statutes which i am giving you in the land. And what follows are those laws listed one after the other taking us from chapter 12 through chapter 26. And in Chapter 27 is where we hear the rest of the details of the blessings and curses ceremony.
So these blessing and curses episodes aren't repetitions, they are bookends of a much larger story. Because we are so used to reading each parsha individually, we don't realize that this section of text that spans four parshiot is actually meant to be read together!
Now that we know all this, let's do a quick recap on what we know about the book of Deuteronomy so far.
Is Deuteronomy More Than Just Laws?We know the book begins with Moshe's retrospective, we know that he certainly is giving Israel a series of pep-talks before they enter the land. The first chapters of pep-talks seem to come to a crescendo in chapter 11 where Moses makes a major promise to the people of Israel: Israel, this thing you are about to do is of grave importance.
You have before you blessings and curses. To achieve great blessing, to avoid the curses, you must follow these laws. So Deuteronomy is, just as we suspected, still a book of inspirational speeches meant to encourage the people before entering the land. But it's also a book of law.
Apparently, this massive list of laws were part of the inspirational speech. These are the laws Moses deemed so important, so essential to what it means to live in blessings in the land, that he chooses to emphasize them for the people.
Now, let's play a little game. Put yourself in Moshe's shoes. You've just pumped the people up, inspired them, and now you need to give over the laws that are the most important ones for them to know. Now, you can't give every law over, that's impractical. What laws would you focus on? I don't know...probably something like the 10 commandments, right? I mean, those are pretty fundamental.
Instead though, we get the laws in our parsha against moving boundary markers, the rules of legal testimony, and cities of refuge. These are the laws Moses wants to focus on, the laws that define us as a people?! But they're so mundane and...boring. Where are the 10 commandments? Or something inspiring?
A Closer Look at the Meaning of Deuteronomy's LawsBut let's go through some of these laws. Maybe we can see what Moses had in mind. לֹ֤א תַסִּיג֙ גְּב֣וּל רֵֽעֲךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֥ר גָּבְל֖וּ רִאשֹׁנִ֑ים – don't move the boundary marker of your neighbour. Yeah, you always wanted a bigger backyard, but you can't just move the fence over a few feet and pretend it was always there. That's dishonest. But more than dishonest; it's actually stealing.
And now let's look at another law. לֹֽא־יָקוּם֩ עֵ֨ד אֶחָ֜ד בְּאִ֗ישׁ...עַל־פִּ֣י ׀ שְׁנֵ֣י עֵדִ֗ים א֛וֹ עַל־פִּ֥י שְׁלֹשָֽׁה־עֵדִ֖ים יָק֥וּם דָּבָֽר – one witness cannot testify alone against a man, we require at least two or three witnesses. כִּֽי־יָק֥וּם עֵד־חָמָ֖ס בְּאִ֑ישׁ לַעֲנ֥וֹת בּ֖וֹ סָרָֽה – if a witness with evil intent tries to bear false witness against him, the judges shall investigate the matter, וְהִנֵּ֤ה עֵֽד־שֶׁ֙קֶר֙ הָעֵ֔ד, and if they find out that he was lying, you must justly punish him. His sentence shall be whatever he sought to do to his fellow.
Wait a second...laws about testimony, about not bearing false witness? Laws about not stealing? Those sound a lot like...the 10 commandments. Is that what's going on here? Are all these laws somehow related to the 10 Commandments?
Well, the 10 commandments are the mission statement of the people of Israel. I could see how those laws lead to blessings and stave off curses. But maybe we're jumping the gun; two laws do not a pattern make, maybe it's just a coincidence. So let's see if we can find some more evidence for the theory that these laws somehow relate to the 10 Commandments.
Moses tells the people to set up cities of refuge: Separate for yourselves three cities, וְהָיָ֕ה לָנ֥וּס שָׁ֖מָּה כָּל־רֹצֵֽחַ – and they shall be a refuge, a place where every rotzeach, every murderer, shall flee. That word, rotzeach, that's straight out of the 10 commandments – number 6, lo tirtzach, thou shalt not murder.
Commandment number two is לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, עַל-פָּנָי – do not have other gods before Me. Do not worship avodah zarah. Well if we look at the previous parsha, at the beginning of this legal section, we hear: וְנִתַּצְתֶּ֣ם אֶת־מִזְבּחֹתָ֗ם וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־מַצֵּ֣בֹתָ֔ם, break their altars, destroy their monuments, וַאֲשֵֽׁרֵיהֶם֙ תִּשְׂרְפ֣וּן בָּאֵ֔שׁ וּפְסִילֵ֥י אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֖ם תְּגַדֵּע֑וּן, burn their asheira trees and smash their idols. What's the best way to make sure there are no other gods before God? Get rid of the avodah zarah!
It's remarkable, but the 10 commandments seem to appear all over this legal section. And the question is: why?
What Is the Purpose of the Laws of Deuteronomy?I mean, don't get me wrong. This is all very cool. It's awesome to realize that the blessing and curses are book-ends; it's cool to zoom out of Deuteronomy and see the underlying structure of this book. It feels great to see the hidden patterns of the Torah and see the 10 commandments popping up, but the question is: why is this here?
It can't just be here because it's cool. This structure, the fact that we argued that this is all meant to be read as one story, that has to mean something! What is the larger message? If Moshe is trying to teach the people the laws that define us as a people...there's a much easier way to do this – why not just teach them the actual 10 commandments?
In fact, he just got through teaching them in Parshat Va'etchanan. He could have just said, hey, blessing to the folks who keep those, curses on the people who stray. It's shorter, and it's even more precise.
For instance, in the example of the cities of refuge, I get that we are using the same word, rotzeach, for a murderer, but a closer examination of this law will reveal seemingly the opposite intent of the original command! The 10 commandments say: "don't murder." This law in Shoftim says "murderers can flee to the special sanctuary city where they escape punishment." And there are so many laws that we haven't even begun to explain how they fit or why they fit.
So take a look at these laws, see if you can find any other references to the 10 commandments in these parshiot, and ask yourself: what is the larger story here? Let's come back and compare notes, next week on The Parsha Experiment.