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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

August 13, 2021

Parashat Shoftim 5781

This week, we come to Parashat Shoftim, or Judges. As we read:

“Shoftim u’shotrim teeten l’cha b’chol sh’arecha — You shall appoint judges and officials to serve in all of your gates. God will give them to you, tribe by tribe, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgement,” (Deut. 16:18).

In the Bible, judges do not only refer to those who sit in courts and make rulings. A shofet, or judge, is also a general term that refers to a leader, one who makes decisions for the entire community. As our Torah Study group knows well, judges may lead the people into battle, offer an inspirational speech or song, and guide the people toward tzedek - justice - a right path, a righteous way of living.

The book of Judges is full of leaders with short reigns and fatal flaws. Almost always, they end up putting themselves before the people they serve. The cycle of Judges is inherently unstable, leading us, one day, toward the ancient Israelite monarchy, the rule of King Saul, and of course, King David.

Deuteronomy, and later, Samuel the prophet, offer us warnings and instructions for appointing a king.

Later in this week’s parasha, we read:

“If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,’ you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Eternal your God…[However, the instruction continues], when he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of the Torah written for him on a scroll…let it remain with him and let him read it all his life…thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from its teaching to the right or to the left.” (Deut. 17:14-20).

Torah must be the guide for the king, a reign based on ethics, teachings, and values. Later in the Bible, Samuel, the last prophet to lead the people before the era of kings begins, rails against their potential to do more evil than good:

“This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you,” he says, “he will take your sons, and appoint them to him for his chariots and to be his horsemen…and to make his instruments of war…and he will take your fields, and your vineyards and your olive trees, even the best of them, and give them to his servants….he will take a tenth of your flock, and you shall be his servants…” (I Samuel 8).

A dire warning about a king’s greed and corruption. While the people are still eager for a king, Samuel’s prophecy does indeed come true, and Saul, David, and the later monarchs are quite greedy, putting their own desires above the people. What the judges lacked in stability, the kings lacked in humility and perspective. They put their needs above that of their people, and they put themselves first.

Samuel’s warning about selfish kings is a cautionary tale not just for ancient times, but for ours, too. After twelve years as prime minister, “King” Bibi Netanyahu was finally defeated this spring by a diverse coalition of Israeli political parties from across the ideological spectrum. Israel works on a parliamentary system, and a majority is needed to hold together a government. No one party won the majority in the latest election, so Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, worked across party lines to form a coalition.

Lapid is a remarkable figure, a worthy judge and leader for modern Israel. His party won the most seats, and yet, in order to encourage a center-right party to join the coalition to unseat Netanyahu, he did not demand that he become the next prime minister. Instead, he offered a rotation, to share this role, giving the position first to Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina party.

Lapid carefully worked to ensure that all the voices within his coalition of socialists, environmentalists, Arab-Israelis, and anti-Bibi conservatives were heard. Lapid made sure that the appropriate number of cabinet positions were given out to each of the parties. Lapid led with equity and openness to form a new government.

Many called Lapid foolish and short sighted. He would never become prime minister, because a government of such conflicting ideals could never last long enough for his turn at the top.

Others saw Lapid as I see him - a political master who had the perspective to understand when he needed to step forward, and when he needed to step back. When he needed to practice tzimtzum - the kabbalistic art of retracting himself, of creating more space for others. Lapid knew that there was no future for Israel with Bibi at the helm for another term. Facing corruption charges, Bibi was more interested in protecting himself than preserving the country and its citizens. Agree with his politics or not, he had lost his way, and become the epitome of the selfish king.

Lapid worked not only for his own aspirations and advancement, but on behalf of the entire country. The night after the coalition agreement was finalized, there was a giant rally in downtown Tel Aviv. Everyday Israeli citizens are hopeful once again. I have seen and heard it from my Israeli friends. Those who were apathetic, checked out, and uninterested in politics for years and decades are now engaged and energized. Lapid and the leaders of the other coalitions parties did more than put themselves in power. They put the power back into the hands of the Israeli people.

Israel has many significant political challenges to address, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to economic struggles, to the environment, to religious pluralism, and beyond. However, Lapid, a true leader and judge for Israel, unlocked the door to a better future, to even being able to have those conversations. Lapid understood that diverse voices are needed to move a conversation and a nation forward, lishvatecha, tribe by tribe, party by party, in coalition and collaboration. May they lead Israel with righteous judgement toward a brighter future. I am eager to see what they can do.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Sat, March 25 2023 3 Nisan 5783