United Hebrew Congregation, 13788 Conway Road, St. Louis, MO 63141 | 314-469-0700

August 21, 2020 – Shoftim

Shabbat Message from Rabbi Adam Bellows

The first shlish of Parashat Shoftim is Deuteronomy 16:18-18:5.

We are still slowly making our way toward the High Holy Day Season by entering the Hebrew month of Elul. It takes an entire month of preparation to prepare us for the immensity that are the holidays of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah. Between now and our New Year, we slowly climb out of the darkness of Tisha B’Av toward the light of freedom and redemption.

This Shabbat reminds us of the importance not to turn back while striving to escape that which oppressed us. We ought not perseverate on the evils that plagued our past; rather, we look forward toward a new life of goodness. In this week’s Torah portion, God reminds us not to look back.

God says that if we would like to appoint a ruler as the highest authority in the land, it is permissible. Note that we are not commanded to appoint a king because, unlike other nations, who need someone to create and enforce law, Jews have God. The 15th-Century Portugese Commentator Isaac Abarbanel says that God is our Ruler and fills roles other nations’ kings or queens would fill. Again though, it is permissible to appoint a ruler, given certain caveats.

For example, Israel may only appoint a ruler that is from among the People of Israel; we may have to live under foreign rulers, but we may only appoint a Jewish one. Given that a ruler of Israel is to be of the People, they must also follow the commandments of the People. One such commandment is not to return to the land of our bondage. Though Jews are allowed to trade with and visit the Land of Egypt, we are not permitted to settle there. This commandment even applies to a Jewish ruler.

In Deuteronomy chapter 17, we read, “Moreover, [a king] shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since God has warned you, ‘You must not go back that way again’” (Deut. 17:16). The 12th-Century Spanish commentator, Nachmanides, explains that Jews believed horses to have come from the Land of Egypt and were only later brought to the Land of Israel. He writes that if a ruler of Israel keeps many horses, they would have no choice but to send servants to the Land of Egypt to procure such a supply. Again, Jews are not forbidden from trade with Egypt. However, a ruler would undoubtedly require their servants to settle in Egypt to secure a flow of horses to Israel. Thus, according to Nachmanides, a ruler must not keep a large supply of horses because they would be forcing Jews to settle the land from which their ancestors fled.

Why would God not allow us to turn back to Egypt? If we have our freedom, why could we not live in Egypt as free people? The answer is that one should not look back toward that which they are fleeing. If a ruler forces people to begin settling in Egypt, soon those people may be slaves again.

Similarly, if we allow ourselves to turn back toward that which oppresses us, we risk alling under its authority once again. The only way to ensure a bright future for our People and for ourselves is to look forward, and to ignore the temptations of our former “Egypts”. Thus, a ruler of the People of Israel must ensure that everyone, even the ruler, maintains a true path away from oppression.

In this season, we do not look back toward the darkness of Tisha B’Av , nor do we allow ourselves to fall back into our oppression of this past year. Rather, we push ourselves to focus on personal renewal and rebirth. The High Holy Day season is a tabula rasa, a clean slate, on which to begin anew as a free individual.

This Shabbat, our special programming for the month of Elul continues. You can join me, Rabbi Bellows, on Friday at 11 am as we explore how to become whole again this season. Please also join me to prepare for Shabbat at 1pm with Erev Shabbat meditation. Our virtual Nosh begins at 5:15 pm, and our services will livestream at 6 pm. On Saturday, after Torah Study at 9am, we celebrate as Carli and Sadie Alper become B’not Mitzvah at 10:30 am. Following services, join Rabbi Rosenberg as she delves into the ancient Jewish practice of Mussar. Later that day, join Rabbi Bellows, once again, for Teshuvah 101, describing the basics of sin and repentance in Judaism. Finally, finish your Shabbat with Next Week, Now! which will look ahead to next week’s Torah portion.

There are so many opportunities, this Shabbat, to come together virtually, so please come join us!

Shabbat Shalom!