Parasha Shoftim: It's time for Elijah

Fascinatingly, the Bible records a number of different leadership roles in Israel, each of which has to be defined and understood: king, judge, kohen/priest and prophet.

By RABBI SHLOMO RISKIN
August 15, 2007 09:55
3 minute read.

"Judges and officers shall you establish in all your gates… and you shall come to the kohen/priests, to the judges who will be in those days. And you shall do in accordance with what they tell you… And you shall surely set up for yourselves a king …" (Deut. 16:18, 17: 8-10,14) Fascinatingly, the Bible records a number of different leadership roles in Israel, each of which has to be defined and understood: king, judge, kohen/priest and prophet. Each played a major role, and only when they all operate in tandem, each playing its "instrument" to perfection in order to balance the others, can Israel hope to become a "holy nation and kingdom of priest-teachers." The king must be the orchestra leader. He must serve as chief executive officer, setting policy and seeing to the proper functioning of a government dedicated to being a beacon of enlightenment, a model of morality and freedom to the world. But Israel's king must also be the agent for the King of Kings, and must therefore discard the normal trappings of monarchy - the acquisition of many houses (or Volvos), the marrying of many wives (or mistresses) and the amassing of gold and silver - and always bear a Torah scroll to remind him of who is the true Ruler. (Deut. 17:15-20; Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Hagiga 3). The next most critical functionary was the legislative leadership, in the form of the 71-judge Sanhedrin, and especially its prince or president (nasi), who traditionally hailed from the tribe of Judah. These judges not only decided how the Law was to be followed by Israel, especially those laws which were in dispute by the rabbinic leaders; even more importantly, the Sanhedrin had to extrapolate new laws in response to changing circumstances (such as the destruction of the Second Temple), so that the Divine Voice from Sinai would continue to be heard throughout the generations. But perhaps the most fundamental were the priest and the prophet, who had to complement each other despite (or perhaps because of) the natural tensions which of necessity developed between them, and whose awe-inspiring presence - especially that of the prophet - is so tragically absent today. I have previously commented on the fact that the kohen-priests wore special garments, and that the position was completely dictated by pedigree; only if your father was a kohen could you be a kohen. The kohen represented the march of tradition, the ritual laws regarding praying and eating, fasting and feasting, the minutiae of religious observances from the moment a Jew rises in the morning to the time he/she goes to sleep at night, and life-cycle events from cradle to grave. But as crucially important as ritual detail may be for Jewish continuity, and as an expression of the utter seriousness with which we take Divine service, obsession with such observances can destroy the very spirituality our religion is attempting to foster, and turn a sincere inner emotion into an external show. One of the major purposes of kashrut is to unite the Jewish people into a separate ethnic entity, dedicated to the preservation of our faith, but is there today any force in Jewish life which so divides the nation? More often than not, religiosity is measured by which homes or restaurants I will not eat in or which kashrut certification I will not accept. Are we truly preserving the march of Jewish generations when children refuse to eat in Sabbath-observing parental homes because the parents don't insist on "kosher" milk (halav Yisrael) or accept the Chief Rabbinate's ruling that it's permissible to sell the topsoil of Israel to Arabs during the Sabbatical Year? Who can argue the central role that Torah study has played in the forging of our nation? But what a bitter taste is left in the mouths of secular Israelis when their haredi co-religionists not only refuse to have their youth serve in the IDF but even disallow a minimum period of national service which would have demonstrated that we remain united in our commitment to the preservation of the Jewish state. In biblical times it was the prophet - devoid of special clothes or pedigree - who reminded the priests, king and nation that God desires first the service of the heart; that the true purpose of ritual is to bring Jews together, freely giving love and compassion. That animal sacrifices and festival observances are meaningless attempts to bribe God if we forget the orphan, the widow and the homeless (Isaiah 1). The courageous voice of the prophet, whose major task is to define religious priorities, is sadly lacking in our institutionalized Jewish community. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.


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