Thoughts on Shofetim (2018/5778)

(Deut. 16:18 = 21:9)

[Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday 8/17/18] 

Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Shofetim, deals with many aspects of civil governance.  We are probably most familiar with the phrase that appears near the beginning of the parasha, “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof” – “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut. 16:20) – words that inspire us to concern ourselves with society at large, and not only our own personal needs. 

Many different interpretations have been offered through the centuries regarding why the word “Tzedek/Justice” is repeated  -- Why doesn’t it just say “tzedek tirdof” / “justice you shall pursue”  Why does it instead reiterate TZEDEK TZEDEK. – JUSTICE JUSTICE?  In our own time, when our country is so politically divided, perhaps the most relevant interpretation is the one that suggests that the word “Tzedek”/”Justice” is said more than once  because there is more than a single view of what it means depending upon whom you ask.

This year we are in year two of our triennial cycle of Torah readings.

Our second triennial year readings open with the following passage, which, admittedly, doesn’t immediately jump out at you as being super dramatic or exciting. 

But here it is:

In Deuteronomy 18: 6-8, we read:

6 If a Levite would go, from any of the settlements throughout Israel where he has been residing, to the place that the Eternal has chosen, he may do so whenever he pleases. 7 He may serve in the name of the Eternal his God like all his fellow Levites who are there in attendance before the Eternal. 8 They shall receive equal shares of the dues, without regard to personal gifts or patrimonies.

According to Rashi and other commentators, the Levite referred to here is not just any old Levite but rather a Levite descended from Aaron’s family, i.e. a Kohen or Priest.  We had learned earlier in the book of Deuteronomy that once the Israelites would be settled in the Land of Israel, local sanctuaries would be outlawed and all sacrificial worship would take place only at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Biblical and historical evidence is not totally clear or consistent[1] about what happened after that.  However, the general traditional understanding is that the various priestly families would be divided up into mishmarot –or watches – with each kohen serving at the Jerusalem Temple for a one-week stint twice each year.   

These Levitical Priests were given special portions of the animal and grain offerings that they helped administer.  As it says at the beginning of Deuteronomy 18: 

The levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no territorial portion with Israel. They shall live only off the Eternal’s offerings by fire as their portion, 2 and shall have no portion among their brother tribes: the Eternal is their portion, as [God] promised them. 3 This then shall be the priests' due from the people: Everyone who offers a sacrifice, whether an ox or a sheep, must give the shoulder, the cheeks, and the stomach to the priest. 4 You shall also give him the first fruits of your new grain and wine and oil, and the first shearing of your sheep.

This scenario raises the question:  What if they had no other source of sustenance during the 50 other weeks of the year when it was not their scheduled rotation?

So, Parashat Shofetim comes around and says --- even if it’s not currently his scheduled rotation time of active service, he could still come to Jerusalem and share in the priestly benefits

To be cut off from that source of sustenance would have been unthinkable.

In the URJ Women’s Torah Commentary, it is explained:

Since Deuteronomy outlaws local sanctuaries, the Levites formerly serving at those sanctuaries can no longer earn a livelihood except at the central sanctuary. Those who do not serve ther must depend on communal charity, along with the widow, the fatherless and the stranger.  Our passage seems to try to avoid that situation by providing the option for the unemployed Levite to find employment and allotment from sacrifices at the central sanctuary.  (Women’s Torah Commentary, p. 1149, note to Deut. 18: 6-8)

What possible connection can all of this have to our contemporary concerns?

Well, the continued priestly prerogatives of the Levites even when not currently their time of service reminds me of the continued security clearances of intelligence officials even when not currently their time of service. 

Their continued access to top secret information makes them more marketable as private consultants, just as the retention of priestly prerogatives for off-duty Levites helps assure them of economic security.

But, of course, it’s more than that:  

The 13th century French Torah commentator Chizkuni  explains that the Levites:   “were travelling teachers, leaving the towns set aside for the Levites and visiting small communities in order to teach there.”[2]  Thus it was beneficial to society as a whole that they continue to get their allotments even if they weren’t serving in the current Temple contingent.

Similarly, we could argue that it is important and beneficial to society that folks like CIA and FBI directors   ----  the modern equivalent of the Levites of old if you will --- should retain their security clearances – the modern equivalent of the priestly prerogatives of old if you will.

As CBS News reporter Olivia Gazis explains: “Former intelligence and law enforcement officials commonly retain their security clearances in order to ensure institutional continuity and in the event their expertise proves useful to their successors.”

That’s an observation that should seem obvious to us:  After all, right there in Psalm 92, the Psalm for the Sabbath Day,  that we chanted earlier in the service tonight, we said about  righteous people  -- OD YENUVUN BESEYVAH – they continue to be fruitful in old age. 

In other words, it behooves us to keep in the loop those vatikim/ the veterans among us --- whose prior experiences can help us address the complexities of our own day.

Cutting them off from being able to do so hurts not just them but us. 

And, indeed, that is the message that was relayed by a dozen former CIA directors from both Democratic and Republican administrations this week when they issued the following statement[3]

As former senior intelligence officials, we feel compelled to respond in the wake of the

ill-considered and unprecedented remarks and actions by the White House regarding the removal of John Brennan’s security clearances. We know John to be an enormously talented, capable, and patriotic individual who devoted his adult life to the service of this nation. Insinuations and allegations of wrongdoing on the part of Brennan while in office are baseless. Since leaving government service John has chosen to speak out sharply regarding what he sees as threats to our national security. Some of the undersigned have done so as well. Others among us have elected to take a different course and be more circumspect in our public pronouncements. Regardless, we all agree that the president’s action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances – and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech. You don’t have to agree with what John Brennan says (and, again, not all of us do) to agree with his right to say it, subject to his obligation to protect classified information. We have never before seen the approval or removal of security clearances used as a political tool, as was done in this case. Beyond that, this action is quite clearly a signal to other former and current officials. As individuals who have cherished and helped preserve the right of Americans to free speech – even when that right has been used to criticize us – that signal is inappropriate and deeply regrettable.  Decisions on security clearances should be based on national security concerns and not political views.

So ends the statement that was signed onto by Robert Gates, William Webster, George Tenet, Porter Goss, Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus and others.

We are fortunate in our fractious era that individuals of good will remain committed to public service even as we continue to debate the proper course our nation should take in pursuit of justice.

We experience blessing when we can be open to considering the wisdom of those who have been there before and who continue to desire to contribute.

Od Yenuvun Beseyvah/ They shall be fruitful even in old age.

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg

August 2018/ Elul 5778 




[1] See Encyclopdia Judaica on the subject

[2] Chizkuni on Deut. 18:6 as retrieved on


Posted on August 21, 2018 .