Parasha Shoftim Devarim (Deut) 16:18-21:9
By Rav Mikahel
This week’s Parasha contains a promise by Moshe that one day G-d will raise up a prophet like him from among them (18:15). The Nazarenes applied this to Yahushua (Acts 3:22, 7:37). If that is so, and certainly we believe it is, there are some serious implications based on our Torah passage. The prophet speaks in G-d’s name and the people are to do everything He commanded and if they do not, G-d Himself will personally hold them accountable. This is certainly reminiscent of the way G-d dealt with Israel through Moshe. G-d spoke, Moshe wrote and/or spoke and the people did. If they didn’t do, the discipline was swift and often severe. This prophet will have the same authority. This implications for ignoring or disobeying the prophet are severe. Yahushua will not be ignored!
Why do I bring this up now, when there are so many other things in this week’s parasha to talk about? Because everything in life, as I continue to learn, must be done in balance, and that includes what we are trying to accomplish in Nazarene Judaism. And I make these statements to assure that balance. Many times we spend a lot of time in “Judaism”, learning and studying and (hopefully) applying. And of course a Torah lifestyle is an essential part of being a follower of Israel’s Messiah and being in covenant relationship with G-d. And we have sought to develop our Judaism in a way that will find acceptance among our non-Nazarene brethren, and there is nothing wrong with that either, Torah should be the basis of acceptance in Israel, that is what Torah says.
But sometimes we may begin to lose sight of the fact that we have a mission to do what we can to convince our brethren, the Jew first and then the Gentile, that Yahushua is the Messiah of Israel. That is what the early Nazarenes did and we should study the sermons of Acts to see how they did it because they were very successful. Yahushua is the prophet foretold by Moshe Rabbinu and Israel is commanded to listen to Him. I have occasionally seen a tendency (and have fallen into it myself) to try to make ourselves acceptable to Judaism by not emphasizing this truth with which we have been entrusted. But our relationship with the other Judaisms should be a two way street, they teach us Torah (since they have been at it a bit longer) and we teach them about the Messiah. That is our mission, it is that to which we are called and chosen. If we neglect it or ignore it, there are dire warnings for us like “if you deny Me before men I will deny you before My Father”. We have a duty to tell and Israel has a duty to obey the prophet Yahushua.
We are all familiar with Ezekiel’s charge as Israel’s watchman. If calamity was coming and he did not raise the alarm, the blood of the casualties would be on his hands. The same applies to us. The Torah is clear, the people of Israel will be severely disciplined for their rejection of the Prophet and we need to warn them. If we neglect our duty, their blood will be required at our hand. We have the greatest opportunity before us because for the first time in eighteen hundred years, Yahushua is being taught and lived in His original context. The Jewish people have rejected “Jesus” and rightly so, he’s not the Messiah. We know Him and our presentation of the truth should result in the same kind of success among Israel that the first Talmidim had. So be strong, courageous and bold, going forth and making true talmidim out of the Jew first, and then the Gentile.
This week’s parasha includes rules and regulations for the army of Israel. In chapter 20:1-9 YHVH gives guidelines that govern who may serve in the army when Israel goes out into battle. It seems very lenient and generous. One who has bought a new home or betrothed a wife or even planted a new vineyard is ‘excused’ from serving at that time. Obviously this did not apply in the case of an emergency when every able bodied man was expected to do his duty, but for ‘optional wars’, those that expanded the territory of Israel. One could just imagine the housing boom and the number of proposals that would have resulted from a similar policy in the United States in the late sixties.
There are some very important principles described in this passage that apply to the conduct of the army of Israel that are applicable all the time, whether the war be spiritual, physical or both. The scriptures, and particularly the writings of Rabbi Sha’ul, are replete with martial analogies. So as we go into the world as a community organized to fight against the powers of darkness and deception, we need to understand the principles contained in this parasha so the makeup of the army will be such that it will be an effective fighting force.
The first principle we need to understand, exemplified by the speech of the Kohen in v.3-4 is that the battle is not fought primarily in the physical realm. The battle in YHVH’s, He fights for us therefore we have nothing to fear. As Yahushua said, ‘greater is He that is in us that he that is in the world.’ The enemies of Israel at this time included giants and powerful nations and the battles may have seemed overwhelming; and on a purely physical level they would have been. But YHVH is the One who gives the victory. When the community is fulfilling the covenant they can rest on the promise that G-d will fight their battles. The same applies to us today.
The rest of the section deals with these ‘exemptions’. It even concludes with the injunction that anyone who is still afraid should go home so as not to discourage their brethren. This is a very important principle that far to few people take seriously. When dealing with the battles the community faces, those involved need to be focused and in a constant state of prayer and righteousness. This is particularly true of leaders G-d has raised within a community. If those who are fighting the battle are surrounded by people that are either distracted or afraid, focus will be lost and so will the battle. As is is said in the arena of sports, ‘if you’re not here to play, get off the field!’
This is not to say that those who currently are distracted by life or still have not matured spiritually so as to quench their fears are bad or evil. Our portion does not condemn them in any way. It is merely stating the reality that they do not belong in the thick of battle, they belong on the sidelines, supporting and encouraging. A moment to speak from personal experience. As a leader in a congregation I know that I have a responsibility to stay focused, to spend time in study and prayer and to be in top form for whatever battle may arise. If I am not I may jeopardize the community. I am judged more severely and I have voluntarily taken on that challenge so I need to fulfill that duty. All of you out there in that position had better be taking your responsibility very seriously.
Those of you who work side by side with leaders, taking on responsible roles in your local congregations have the same responsibility, you too are in the thick of the battle and need to be ready. Your leaders count on you and you need to be there. If you are not, and I can tell you from personal experience, it is distracting at best, inconvenient at times and devastating at worst.
To the rest of you I say this. Evaluate your life and see where you belong. Some of you are ready to join the battle, do it. Some of you are not. Be honest with yourself. If you are not ready, stay out before you become a stumbling block. There are plenty of ways to support the troops, with your encouragement, your prayers, your consistent attendance at shul, your willingness to learn and study and share, your financial support when needed. These things are just as vital to the success of the effort. Just don’t get in and be a distraction or a discouragement. Don’t be a ‘high maintenance’ person who saps the strength of those who are in the battle. If we all know our place and work hard at the jobs we’ve been given we will go forward in power and unity and conquer the land.
In this week’s parasha, we find the commandment concerning a king, if Israel should ever desire one. “..You cannot place over yourself a foreign man, who is not your brother. Only he shall not have too many horses for himself, so that he will not return the people to Egypt in order to increase horses, for YHVH has said to you, ‘you shall no longer return on this road again’. And he shall not have too many wives, so that his heart not turn astray, and he shall not greatly increase silver and gold for himself. It shall be that when he sits on the throne on his kingdom, he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah in a book, from before the Kohanim, the Levites. It shall be with him and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear YHVH, his G-d, to observe all the words of this Torah, and these decrees to perform them.”
In contrast to other oriental kings, the king of Israel was not to be an absolute monarch. He was to be under the law as well. The Torah applied to him the same way it did to any other man in Israel. In order to ensure he understood this, he was to write for himself two copies of the Torah under the direction of the levites and priests so he would know what was expected of him. He was to submit to the rule of law, the Torah, and not establish his own. The king would then lead the people in righteousness through his own example because we know that Israel went the way of her kings, for good or bad.
Solomon, as we know, was the wisest man on earth at his time. In his youth, he was a man after G-d’s heart like his father David. He wrote the Torah just as David his father did so we wonder what went through his mind when he came to this passage. The midrash on this passage gives us a clue. “When G-d gave the Torah to Israel, He inserted therein positive and negative commands and gave some commandments for a king. as it says, ‘he shall not multiply horses to himself...neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart not turn away..’ But Solomon arose and studied the reason of G-d’s decree saying ‘Why did G-d command’ he shall not multiply wives to himself’? Is it not, ‘that his heart not turn away?’ Well I will multiply wives and still my heart will not turn away’.
Solomon was making one of the greatest mistakes that students of Torah who seek righteousness make. He thought he was wiser than G-d. He thought that since he understood the reason behind the command that the actual command was not important anymore. Take the laws of kashrut for example. We could say that G-d said we shouldn't eat certain things because in the ancient world without refrigeration and modern cooking methods, those things would have made them sick. So now that we have these things, I can eat what I want. That would be completely wrong, not just for kashrut but for other things. What does it say not to covet your neighbors wife. There is no penalty ascribed, how could there be, it’s a sin of the mind. But if we disregard it it could lead to adultery which is a sin of action and for which there is a penalty. To say, therefore, that it is ok to look and not touch is to act foolishly and will lead down the same path that Solomon did.
The midrash concludes “Yet what is written of Solomon? ‘For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods.’ R. Shimon bar Yochai said, ‘It would have been better for Solomon to clean sewers than to have this verse written of him.” If even the wisest man was not wiser than the Torah, who do we think we are?
This parasha contains the only reference in the teachings of Moshe to the coming of the Messiah (Deut 18:15-19). In this passage, he is not called a messiah, however, but ‘the prophet’. Just a quick note; the so called Pseudoclementines written by Clement as he traveled with Peter, is one of the few documents that refer to Y’shua almost exclusively as ‘the prophet’. Moshe, as he talks about this prophet, gives a reason and then some criteria for this man who is to follow in his footsteps. The reason for this prophet is first, and most obviously, to lead the people, as Moshe did. Moshe was the key person who took a bunch of slaves and created an independent nation. He will speak the words of God to the people and the one who does not listen to him will be held accountable. Because this is the only place in the Torah other than Genesis three that talks of the Messiah, we would do well to consider these things when evaluating the mission of Y’shua. While one of the purposes of His coming was to give his life as a ransom for many, was his main mission to establish the kingdom for Israel and instead of his sacrifice being a focal point, was it a means to that eventual end? Just as there are things we accept without question in Judaism and so allow the rabbis to define the meaning of Torah, legitimately or illegitimately, so we have often accepted much of basic Christianity, particularly when we are defining the purpose of messiah. These are questions that need to be explored in a fresh new way, not in the politically correct way of either Judaism or Christianity.
The interesting thing about the passage in question is the ‘why’. Specifically, why was this prophet necessary? According to this passage, verse 16, the people asked for such a prophet. They did not want to hear the voice of God or see any form of his manifestation. Such intimate interaction with God was beyond their ability to handle. But why? Isn’t this the reason they came out of Egypt? So YHVH could be their God and they could be His people? Now they don’t want to see or hear him. This is not working out as planned. But why? They were not ready. Moshe saw God face to face after forty years in the desert learning to listen, calming his spirit, becoming one with God’s world in solitude. This group of slaves did not have such vision and preparation. The miracles impressed them but they remained just that, impressive magic shows. When Y’shua was on earth, his miracles convinced very few. Miracles do not convince, they merely confirm. Our parasha says the same of any prophet. It is the message, not the miracles, that are central, the miracles merely give additional credibility. The Jewish leadership in Y’shua’s time and the slaves of Moshe’s had not yet had the intimate interaction with the ultimate truth that the miracles could confirm. The miracles simply eased suffering for a time and made no lasting impact.
God needed a way to interact with His people that would not be overwhelming. At the time, Moshe filled this role. He was a middleman. God had a relationship with him that was what he desired to have with everyone. God’s desire was that Moshe would teach them how to do this and then all of God’s people would be prophets. As we know, that did not happen. Knowing this, and knowing that he would not be with them much longer, Moshe tells the people that there would come one who would teach the people truth again just as he had, that the prophet who would come and complete the mission.
More than that, however, this prophet would meet God’s need for direct interaction with His people. Ever since God walked with Adam in the garden, God has desired that kind of intimacy with man. A few men and women have found it; often after years of prayer, preparation and solitude. They have sought God and found him. As the prophet, God was going to seek man. He himself was going to set up the kingdom. He was going to carry the people himself. He was going to teach, guide and lead the people. These are all things that Moshe did with varying degrees of success. Now the boss himself was going to do the job, rather than an ‘assistant’. The prophet like Moshe has come and he was more that perhaps even Moshe himself imagined.