Thoughts on Parashat Shofetim

(Deut. 16:18 – 21:9)

Last Shabbat our community celebrated the bat mitzvah of a young woman named Lillian.  And next Shabbat we’ll celebrate the bar mitzvah of a young man named David.  I know it’s an overused cliché, but I do feel and I know that many of you feel, that our congregation is like an extended family.  So that it wasn’t just Lillian’s biological family last week and it won’t be just David’s biological family next week who rejoice on their Simcha, on their happy milestone.  All of us rejoice as well.

On happy occasions, like bnai mitzvah or weddings or baby namings, one of the traditional things we do is break into song.  And what do we sing? 

“Siman Tov u Mazal Tov yehey lanu ulekhawl Yisra’el”.

Some of you who know the words of that song well may not know the literal translation of those words, so let me share that with you.

The words literally mean, “A good sign and a good constellation, may it be for us and for all Israel” (“all Israel” in this context meaning “All the Jewish People”).  

This seems to have astrological implications, right?

How many of you will admit to looking at the horoscopes? I know I do.  Some days I dismiss it as irrelevant nonsense.  But some days it makes sense and carries lots of meaning for me.  In fact, though I’ve long since lost it, for many years I used to carry around with me my “today’s birthday horoscope” that I found in the newspaper on July 26, 2005.  It said:

"Just because a mountain is there does not mean you have to climb it.  Some people feel that they have to prove themselves constantly, so they go out of their way to do extraordinary things, but you are pretty extraordinary just as you are, so there is really no need to do anything special this year."

Let me tell you --  that’s a message I often need to hear. I wouldn’t take it to any extremes --- I DO think it’s important to have goals and to set challenges for oneself, but the idea that we each have intrinsic worth – indeed, intrinsic “extraordinariness,” is probably a message that we could all benefit from taking to heart more often than we do.

However, it would seem that this idea of “siman tov u’ mazal tov” – “good sign and good constellation” – conflicts with the rules, or at least the spirit, of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shofetim, where it says in Deuteronomy 18: 10-11:

"Let no one be found among you who passes their son or their daughter through fire, or anyone who practices enchantment, or who is a soothsayer or a diviner or a sorcerer. Or one who casts spells, or consults ghosts or familiar spirits or who inquires of the dead."  

The Conservative movement’s Torah Commentary “Etz Hayim” helpfully informs us that “Magic for purposes of entertainment is permitted.” (Halakhah l’ma’aseh commentary on Deut. 18:10, p. 1095).  So, reading the horoscopes, or watching Harry Potter movies are probably okay.

In any event, what I get out of the Torah reading is that trying to predict the future through supposedly magical or supernatural means implies a lack of faith in God.  And so the warnings against those practices are followed with the admonition:  תָּמִ֣ים תִּֽהְיֶ֔ה עִ֖ם יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃ / “You shall be ‘tamim’ with Adonai your God. (Deut. 18:13). 

“Tamim” is translated in a variety of ways in different Torah commentaries and even within the same Torah commentary at its different occurrences.  Translations include: “wholehearted,” “perfect,” “simple,” “upright,” “blameless,” “above reproach” and “pure of heart.”

Elsewhere in the Torah, the same word תמים “/”tamim” is used to describe Abraham (Gen. 17:1) and Noah (Gen. 6:9), both of whom are models of faith in God. 

And, as the Plaut Torah commentary notes, the word “תמים “/”tamim” is also related to the word “tam” meaning “simple” – which you may recall as the description of one of the four types of children that the traditional text of the Passover Haggadah says are present at the seder meal.   Our Torah commentary says:  “Israel is to have simple, undivided loyalty to God, unsullied by magic practices.” (Note to Deut. 18:13, Plaut Torah Commentary, 2nd ed, p. 1298)

Why does the Torah make such a big deal about soothsaying, sorcery and the like? 

The idea of a “jealous God” does not really resonate for me.

Rather, for me the underlying issue is fatalism.  If you feel like you can predict the future, you can get weighed down by inertia, as if nothing really matters because all has been predetermined.  On the contrary, Judaism seeks to focus on the here and now, and teaches us that we CAN make a difference in the here and now as we work to create a just society.   That’s the spirit characterized by perhaps the most famous phrase in this week’s Torah portion צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף / “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice you shall pursue….”) (Deut. 16:20).

Are the practices of psychics, astrologers and fortunetellers “true?”  Actually, there’s a debate over this among the classic Jewish sages and commentators.  In the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat, Rabbi Chanina says

מזל מחכים מזל מעשיר ויש מזל לישראל

("Mazal mechakim, mazal ma'ashir, ve-yesh mazal le-yisra'el")

“The influence of the constellations (i.e., “mazal”) gives wisdom and Mazal gives wealth; and Israel has “mazal” – i.e., Israel is under the influence of the constellations.”  But Rabbi Yochanan responds אין מזל לישראל ("eyn mazal le-yisra'el") “There is no influence of the constellations for Israel.”   (Talmud, Shabbat 156a).

Maimonides (writing in the late 12th century) is among the naysayers.  In his Mishneh Torah he adamantly declares: “All who give credence to any of these things and imagines that they are true, but only forbidden by Torah, are nothing but fools and weakminded… But scholars and enlightened thinkers are convinced that all these things prohibited by the Torah are not matters of wisdom, but mumbo-jumbo by which the gullible are misled, and for the sake of which they abandon all ways of truth.  Therefore, the Torah, in admonishing to beware of these vanities, declares – “Tamim Tiheyeh Im Adonai Elohekha”/ “You shall be wholehearted with Adonai your God.”  (Mishneh Torah, Avodah Zarah 11, 16 as cited in N. Liebowitz, Studies in Devarim, p. 185 [adapted])

What Jewish tradition tells us is that, instead of consulting the stars, we should have faith in God who controls the stars.  As it says in Psalm 147:  “Monim mispar lakochavim, lchulam sheymot yikra” (Ps. 147:4) (God “counts the number of the stars, giving names to each of them.”)  This to me is a metaphor for the idea that just as each star is unique and special, so is each person, and so is each element of creation.

 Finally, another way of defining the word “tamim”.  The medieval writer Bachya Ibn Pakuda writes that the word “tamim” in Deuteronomy 18:13 means having our inner and outer actions in harmony.  Not just thinking about being good and virtuous, but also speaking and acting in the world in accordance with our ethics and morals (cited in N. Liebowitz, Studies in Devarim, p. 181)

May this month of Elul, this last month before the High Holidays, be a time for each of us or becoming more “tamim”/ “wholehearted” with God.  A time for examining whether our words and deeds have been in harmony with our ethics and values.  A time for strengthening our faith both in God and in ourselves.

Shabbat shalom.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg Elul 5777/ August 2017


Posted on August 28, 2017 .