Chapter 16

18 You must appoint judges and sheriffs for yourself in all your cities: The word used for “cities” here literally means “gates.” Allegorically, then, this verse can be interpreted to refer to the “gates” of the body—the ears, eyes, nose, and mouth, through which external stimuli enter our consciousness. We are thus bidden to station “judges and sheriffs” to guard these gates so that we not be invaded by pernicious entities that could be detrimental to our spiritual health and integrity.1

As has been seen,2 the judges were not only responsible for rendering judgment but for enforcing proper behavior, as well. Analogously, our spiritual “judges” comprise both our study of the Torah—which teaches us which influences are beneficial (and therefore permitted) and which are detrimental (and therefore forbidden)—and our behavior in accordance with the Torah’s teachings. Our spiritual “sheriffs” are required only when our evil inclinations interfere with the orderly functioning of our spiritual judiciary, in which case we have to mobilize ourselves to oppose their evil machinations. We do this by carefully considering how harmful it is to ignore the Torah’s injunctions and by deprecating and scorning the advocates of rebellion, both within us and without.

In this context, we can understand why Moses did not appoint sheriffs when the Jewish people were in the desert and why, by the same token, regarding the messianic future, God only promises to “restore your judges as in former times”3 but not the sheriffs. Both in the desert and in the messianic future, evil did not and will not hold sway over us, so there was and will be no need for extreme measures to ensure that we follow God’s will.4

19 Bribery blinds the eyes of the sage: What is insidious about bribery is that it does not make us consciously act immorally or irrationally; rather, it skews our sense of judgment, making us sincerely believe that our warped perception is indeed objective and just. The Torah therefore tells us that it “blinds the eyes of the sage,” implying that even after accepting the bribe, the individual remains a sage, fully capable of logical reasoning, but that he has become blind to objective truth; having become predisposed to the rightness of the briber, his logic proceeds from a predetermined base.5

Thus, it follows that besides common bribery—a monetary or other type of gift—there also exists a subtler form of bribery: the simple awareness of self. A judge, or for that matter, anyone seeking to ascertain the truth about anything, must approach his subject without any sense of selfhood, for even the slightest degree of self-awareness will cause his perception to be subjective, and therefore incorrect, even if only subtly so.6

Chapter 17

8 The Sanhedrin: The Sanhedrin, the high court of 71 judges, inherits its authority from Moses and the 70 elders whom God selected to assist him in his capacity as the supreme legal authority of the Jewish people.7 Its basic function is judicial: to render final decisions in all matters of law brought before it by lower courts or designated specifically for its judgment. In addition, it is responsible for ensuring that the populace know the law and obey it—assisted, when necessary, by law-enforcement officers (“sheriffs”). In these respects, it fills the same function in the Torah’s legal system for Jews that non-Jewish courts fill within the legal system incorporated within the Torah’s Noahide code for non-Jews.8

In addition, however, the Sanhedrin is empowered—within the Torah’s guidelines—to create new laws. In this capacity, the Sanhedrin is the seedbed of the Oral Torah, expanding it and applying it to new cases in accordance with the growth and development of civilization. As such, the Sanhedrin expresses our most sublime spiritual potential: to identify so completely with God that we assume His role as the source of the Torah. It is no wonder, then, that besides possessing judicial expertise, members of the Sanhedrin are required to evince exemplary moral character and humility. Only those who have emptied themselves of ego and self-interest can serve as the channels through which Divine wisdom flows into the world.

As we have seen,9 the Torah’s directive to appoint judges and sheriffs throughout the land can be allegorically interpreted to mean that each of us should assume personal responsibility for learning the Torah and implementing its directives. In this vein, the two roles of the Sanhedrin just described—executive and creative—are mirrored in our personal relationship with God. The “judges”—our responsibility to learn and teach the Torah—correspond to the Sanhedrin’s creative role; the “sheriffs”—our responsibility to implement the Torah’s teachings—correspond to the Sanhedrin’s executive role.

Similarly, every commandment we perform comprises both these facets of relationship with God. There is, first of all, the common, underlying intention behind the performance of God’s commandments: to fulfill His will. In addition, there is the specific intention behind each individual commandment: its unique relevance and capacity to enhance our lives. The former intention is wholly operative, focused on accomplishing the Divine task at hand; the latter intention is more creative, focused on integrating the lesson to be learned from the commandment into our lives as a force for spiritual growth.

As we know, when we accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, we did so by saying, “We will do and we will learn,”10 prefacing “we will do”—performing God’s will—to “we will hear”—studying and understanding the Torah This nuance perfectly expressed our unconditional commitment to our relationship with God. Accordingly, the “judges” are secondary to the “sheriffs”; the creative side is merely the prerequisite to the executive side.

This, however, is only half the story. Prefacing “we will do” to “we will learn” equally implies that “we will do” is prefatory to “we will learn”; in other words, even after we have executed God’s will, there is still intrinsic value to understanding it and internalizing it. This is because our Divine imperative to make the world into God’s home applies not only to our faculty of action but to our intellect and emotions, as well. They, too, must be refined and infused with Divine consciousness.11


[8] The Sanhedrin: The contrast between performing God’s commandments in order to simply fulfill His will vs. performing them in order to glean the specific spiritual effects unique to each one can be viewed as a study in the contrast between simplicity and complexity. God’s underlying will common to all the commandments is undifferentiated; it is the simple will that we make this world into His home. In contrast, each individual commandment owes its uniqueness to the delight God experiences in our performance of it, which is different for each commandment since each one accomplishes a different aspect of transforming the world into His home.

But besides the specific delight associated with the fulfillment of each commandment, there is a higher state of delight, which, like will, is undifferentiated. This simple delight is not attached to any specific referent, but is God’s overall delight in creation; it serves as the source both of His will to create the world as a setting in which the transformation of reality into His home can take place as well as the specific delight embodied in the performance of each individual commandment as its fulfillment propels the world toward that same goal. This supernal, undifferentiated delight is expressed most eloquently through the ongoing expansion of the Oral Law, vested in general in the Sanhedrin but in particular in every Jew as he or she merits to reveal new insights from the Torah’s inexhaustible fountain. Inasmuch as the human creation of Torah is possible only through the highest form of imitatio Dei, the virtual merging of the human self with the Divine self, it is the highest expression of God’s undifferentiated essence.

“Therefore,” God tells us, “I, God, love justice,”12 and the sages teach us13 that the proper implementation of the Torah’s system of justice and jurisprudence, correctly applying the Torah’s vision to all facets of human experience, hastens the ultimate Redemption, which will signify the completion of the Divine task to transform reality into His home.14

11 Even if they have rendered a manifestly incorrect judgment: How can the Torah, which is the ultimate and absolute expression of truth, insist that we follow its sages even when they have manifestly erred? The answer to this question lies in the Torah’s attitude toward the relationship between Divine truth and what we perceive as objective reality. Although the Torah accords great respect to pragmatism, making ample use of empirical knowledge, it at the same time recognizes the superiority of Divine truth over material phenomena and the ability of the former to determine the latter—what we might refer to as positive idealism. Thus, the Talmud asserts15 that a Divinely sanctioned court of Jewish law has the ability, speaking with the voice of the Torah, to alter reality.

Therefore, when the Sanhedrin or any other duly authorized court of Jewish law “errs,” its decision alters the reality in question, rendering its decision ipso facto correct!16

15 You may indeed appoint a king over you: Reading these verses, the impression we form is that, subject to the provisions listed here, the Torah has no opposition to the institution of monarchy. And indeed, the prophetic vision of the Messiah depicts him primarily as a king.

Yet, we see that when the time came and the people did want to appoint a king over themselves, the leading spiritual authority of that time, the prophet Samuel, vehemently opposed the plan,17 and God Himself said that by appointing a king, “they are forsaking Me.”18

In order to understand this seeming contradiction, we can note that, in general, there are two positive motivations for instituting a monarchy. The first is based on society’s recognition that it must follow the law in order to function properly, but that it is incapable of doing so without some palpable form of higher authority that can coerce it into compliance. In this context, monarchy is not so different from any other form of government entrusted by the people to enforce the nation’s laws. In the context of Judaism, the people are ideally meant to follow both the letter and spirit of the Torah’s laws out of self-motivation. However, when the “fear of God”—i.e., the willingness to let God’s will override our personal desires—is lacking, and even the sheriffs of the judiciary are not enough to deter misbehavior, it becomes necessary to invoke a more intimidating deterrent—in this case, a king.

The second positive motivation is based on the Torah’s ideal of the king as the cream of the people, the paragon of Jewish humility and godliness. Inasmuch as not everyone can attain the highest levels of spiritual refinement—nor is even necessarily free to pursue such attainments—it is appropriate to appoint someone who has reached these levels to inspire the rest of the people to evince the spirituality that they do not yet possess but that he embodies, thus enabling them to vicariously experience his self-effacement before God. Needless to say, this second level of monarchy is relevant even when the people possess the basic “fear of God” that renders the first motivation for appointing a king irrelevant.

It was because the people in Samuel’s time requested a king solely for the first reason that he was so opposed to the notion. Samuel would have preferred that the people instead turn their attention inward, redoubling their efforts at refining themselves sufficiently that they would not need a king for the first, more prosaic reason. Similarly, God knew that their reason for seeking a king was out of spiritual laziness, and therefore described it as “forsaking Me.”

On the other hand, since in the final analysis it is better that the people behave properly regardless of their motivation, God instructed Samuel to grant their request and appoint a king. The hope was that after the king would fulfill his first function, inculcating the people with the proper “fear of God,” he would then fulfill his second function, bringing them to true humility and selflessness before God.

Although the Jewish people have not had a formal king since the destruction of the first Temple and will not have another until the advent of the Messiah, we are still enjoined to appoint a higher authority over ourselves, both individually and, wherever relevant, collectively. In the absence of the formal monarchy, this role is filled by the rabbinic establishment.19 The sages therefore say—to each one of us: “Provide yourself with a teacher [of Torah],”20 with whom we should consult on all matters of spiritual life and before whose review and scrutiny we should subject our progress on the spiritual path. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that we can rely on our own “judges and sheriffs” or that higher authority is only relevant once we have attained our optimal level of the “fear of God.” Even while we are struggling to attain this lesser goal, the commandment to appoint a “king” is relevant.

Furthermore, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that there is no suitable candidate to serve as our “king” since no one is perfect and therefore capable of understanding us objectively. The Torah assures us that if we search properly and diligently, we will indeed find the counselor suited to our spiritual needs.21


[15] You may indeed appoint a king over you: Moses himself filled the role of king22 in all but name,23 and by appointing Joshua as his successor he effectively invested him as the next de facto king.24 After Joshua, however, there was no one who acted as the Jewish people’s king, even de facto, until Saul was installed as king by the prophet Samuel.

Samuel installed King Saul by anointing him with the anointing oil,25 and all subsequent kings were either similarly anointed, or acquired their office by inheritance, or both.26 Although the concept of installation by anointment surely formed part of the Oral Torah adjunct to the Written Torah’s description of the institution of kingship, it is strange that it is not mentioned explicitly—as is installation by anointment regarding the priesthood27—particularly in light of the explicit prohibition of anointing any lay person with the anointing oil,28 to which anointing a king is an exception. It is similarly puzzling that Joshua was not anointed, having rather been installed as Moses’ successor by ordination—the laying on of hands.29

The solution to these dichotomies lies in the nature of leadership as envisioned by the Torah. We have noted previously30 that ideally, the leader of the people should primarily be their spiritual leader, their greatest authority in matters of Torah, and only secondarily their leader in material matters. This is the best way for the Jewish nation to be assured that its material needs are being met and managed in accordance with both the spirit and letter of the Torah’s laws. Such was the case with Moses and Joshua, who served primarily as the nation’s foremost authorities in religious knowledge and practice and only secondarily attended to the nation’s needs as their political, military, and administrative leaders.

In later generations, however, this ideal could not be maintained, for the spiritual leaders of the generation did not have the talents for political leadership, and those who did possess these talents were not qualified to act as the highest authorities in matters of Torah. Spiritual leadership was vested in the head of the Sanhedrin, whereas material leadership was vested in the king.

This explains why Joshua was not anointed and why anointment is not explicitly mentioned as the installment rite for Jewish kings. Anointment consecrates the individual for material leadership, whereas spiritual leadership is conferred, as above, by ordination. When both spiritual and material leadership are vested in the same person, material leadership is subordinate to spiritual leadership, and therefore anointment is superfluous. Since this is the ideal condition, the Torah does not mention it explicitly, relying only on Oral Tradition to validate installation by anointment in the inferior situation in which these two aspects of leadership have been separated.31

Chapter 18


[4] You must give: Since no minimal amount for terumah or for the fleece from the first shearing is specified in the Torah, the obligation can be fulfilled with a miniscule gift. Rabbinical law, however, stipulates that these gifts be at least one-sixtieth of the overall yield, since they are meant to be the priests’ source of livelihood, substituting for the land-inheritance given to the other tribes.32 Nowadays, since no one can conclusively prove that he is of priestly lineage (i.e., direct descent from Aaron), and since it is a capital offense for a lay person to consume terumah,33 practice has reverted to the original requirement whereby only a minute amount of produce is set aside as terumah, after which it is burned. The commandment to give the first of the fleece, however, is still performed nowadays, since setting aside the fleece does not render it holy, which would require that the priest be of confirmed lineage to use it; therefore, the rabbinic minimum for this commandment still applies.


[10-15] Divination: The purpose of divination is to predict the future in order to enable one to choose the most effective course of action in the present. The Torah forbids this because we are supposed to lead our lives according to its laws and not according to any notions we may have of what might prove advantageous. In the “gray areas” of life, i.e., those issues about which there is no explicit directive from the Torah and regarding which someone might be in doubt regarding what to do (for example, what career to pursue, whom to marry, etc.),34 it is permissible—and even advisable—to attempt to ascertain God’s will through means that He Himself has provided: as the Torah here describes, we are allowed to consult bona fide prophets for this purpose, and ever since the close of the era of prophecy, the inspired insight of reputable sages of the Torah has taken their place.35 In addition, there are many other permissible means available (some of which were used even during the era of prophecy), such as dream interpretation, bibliomancy, and so on. These techniques are too numerous and their methodologies too complex to be detailed here, but their common denominator is that they only be practiced under the guidance of a competent and qualified rabbinic authority, so as to avoid any unwitting flirtation with divination.36


[11] Necromancy: Communicating with the souls of the dead is not forbidden per se; what is specifically forbidden is communicating with the dead by artificial means, i.e., by manipulating their corpses or skeletons. As an adjunct to our own prayers, it is considered praiseworthy to visit the graves of the righteous to ask them to intercede with God on our behalf, just as Caleb did in Hebron.37 (Of course, we must be careful not to ask them to grant requests, since only God has the power to bestow any sort of beneficence.38) In addition, particularly righteous individuals are even able to “converse” with the dead.39


[13] Be wholehearted with God, your God: The word for “wholehearted” (תמים) also means “complete” or “whole.” Thus read, this verse enjoins us to be “whole,” i.e., not lacking anything, in our relationship with God.

Specifically, the partzuf of Z’eir Anpin is the archetype of the human form, which is mirrored in the anatomy and physiology of both the human body and the human soul. Just as the body comprises 248 physical parts (limbs and organs), both the soul and Z’eir Anpin comprise 248 spiritual parts; just as the physical body has 365 nerves and sinews, both the soul and Z’eir Anpin possess 365 spiritual nerves and sinews. The 248 parts of Z’eir Anpin are the 248 active commandments and its 365 nerves and sinews are the 365 passive commandments. Every component of the human soul and every component of the human body correlates to one of the 613 components of the spiritual “body” of Z’eir Anpin.40

Inasmuch as Z’eir Anpin is the spiritual source of the human body and soul, it follows that the health of both the soul and the body are dependent on the free and continuous flow of Divine energy from Z’eir Anpin into its corresponding components of the soul and the body, respectively. It is therefore of paramount importance that each individual fulfill all 613 commandments in order to ensure that this flow proceed uninterrupted. If, on the other hand, a person neglects to perform a commandment that he or she is obligated to fulfill, the absence of the spiritual pipeline that should have been forged by performing that commandment prevents the corresponding Divine energy from flowing from its source in Z’eir Anpin into the person’s soul and body. This deprivation of life-force renders the person spiritually “disabled” with regard to that component of his or her soul, and will adversely affect the health of the corresponding component of his or her body, as well.

Of course, we cannot all perform all of the 613 commandments; some do not apply to us (since we cannot all be kings, judges, priests, and so on); others only apply when the Temple is standing; others apply only within the Land of Israel; others apply only to men and not to women, or conversely, only to women and not to men; and still others apply only in specific situations (such as if a couple wishes to divorce, or a person owns his own house, etc.). The commandments we cannot fulfill ourselves we fulfill vicariously through those who can fulfill them. In addition, we should study the laws regarding these commandments, thereby fulfilling them at least “virtually”; by learning how these commandments are fulfilled, we internalize them, and in this way they become part of us, almost as if we had fulfilled them physically.41

If we do neglect to perform a commandment that we should have performed, the “medicine” that heals the injured or sick “limb” of our soul (and thereby reinstates the flow of Divine energy to the corresponding limb of our body, as well) is teshuvah, repentance.42 Just as medicine must be more potent than ordinary food in order to heal sickness, so is teshuvah a more intense spiritual exercise than is performing the other commandments, whose neglect it is designed to repair: whereas other commandments elicit Divine energy from God’s Name Havayah, which represents the process by which God constricted His creative energy in order to create the world, teshuvah elicits Divine energy from above the Name Havayah. The rules by which God created the world to function a priori are unforgiving: injury or disease is painful and debilitating; sin impairs the healthy functioning of the soul. But medicine and teshuvah provide cures for physical and spiritual infirmity by wringing the concentrated inner potentials out of their mother lodes—medicinal plants and chemicals, in the case of medicine, and the inner dimension of the soul, in the case of teshuvah. By evoking our inner essence, our inner connection to God, we elicit His forgiveness for having transgressed His will, and He repairs the damage we caused by our negligence.

In this way, we can fulfill the Torah’s injunction in this verse to be “whole,” i.e., not crippled, in our relationship with God.43

19 I will exact punishment from him by putting him to death Myself: In most other cases, the punishment that the Torah prescribes for infringing a commandment is commensurate with the gravity of the commandment. Here, however, no matter what the prophet tells us to do or not to do, disobeying is a capital offence, because the instructions communicated through a prophet are directly and personally addressed by God to the recipients. In contrast, the Torah’s other commandments, having been formalized into a corpus of law, are one step removed from us, the addressees, and therefore violating them is not so brazen an affront to God’s authority as is ignoring a prophet’s message.44

Chapter 19

8 When, in the future, God, your God, expands your boundary as He swore to your forefathers: The Torah has alluded to the messianic Redemption before45 and will again later,46 but here it makes the Redemption part and parcel of a commandment. In so doing, it precludes two mistaken notions that a person could entertain about its promises of a future Redemption:

1. The Torah’s promises of redemption can be annulled for some reason (for example, they could be forfeited by the nation’s misbehavior).

2. The Redemption will be a solely spiritual occurrence, and the prophecies referring to it may be interpreted solely metaphorically.

It is true that God’s promises can be annulled; this is why Jacob was afraid that he no longer deserved God’s promised protection when he was about to confront Esau.47 But the Torah’s commandments cannot be abrogated, so a promise that is part of a commandment cannot be annulled.

Similarly, although there will indeed be a spiritual dimension to the Redemption—which will in fact be its principal significance—the Redemption will also be manifest physically, just as all the Torah’s commandments must be fulfilled physically, notwithstanding their great spiritual relevance.48

When, in the future, God, your God, expands your boundary as He swore to your forefathers: It is no accident that the future Redemption is alluded to in the context of the cities of refuge. The cities of refuge protect the inadvertent murderer from the blood avenger and the murderer’s exile to the city of refuge atones for his inadvertent sin.49 Allegorically, the blood avenger is our evil inclination, who attempts to trick us into sinning and thereby suffering some form of death—from a loss of vitality in our spiritual endeavors up to and including incurring the death penalty itself. The messianic Redemption will be our ultimate refuge from this pursuer, inasmuch as the evil inclination will then be nullified.50 Similarly, the messianic Redemption and the attendant restitution of the Temple service will afford all who need it the opportunity to complete their atonement.51


[8] When, in the future, God, your God, expands your boundary as He swore to your forefathers: Besides initiating the resumption of all of the Torah’s laws that were suspended during the exile, the advent of the messianic Redemption will initiate an era of permanent world peace and prosperity.52 These changes will not in themselves necessitate any fundamental modification of human nature; after all, there have been times of peace and prosperity in the past.

Nonetheless, we are told that this peace and prosperity will be eternal, which would imply at least an eventual reformation of human nature in order to preclude any backsliding into malfeasance. Thus, there are prophecies that indicate that, at some point in the messianic future, there will be a radical transformation in human nature, marked by God’s removal of the evil inclination, restoring us to the moral innocence of Adam and Eve before they ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.53 When that transformation occurs, intentional murders will no longer be committed, and even unintentional murders will not occur, since unintentional sins occur when some inner, hidden fault surfaces, and we will be purged even of such faults.

Nonetheless, cities of refuge might still be necessary then, in order to effect atonement for those who committed an inadvertent murder before. Such individuals will need to go into exile in the nearest city of refuge.

The fact that there will be cities of refuge even in the messianic future indicates that the permission the Torah grants the blood avenger to kill the inadvertent murderer outside the city of refuge is not a concession to human barbarity, but is valid and just. As we have noted, inadvertent sins reflect the presence of some deep-seated evil; thus, if, by Divine providence, someone commits an inadvertent murder, it indicates that he or she suffers from some serious inner moral flaw that requires drastic treatment—either death or living in exile under the threat of death for a protracted period. As we have seen, the Torah makes use of several methods of capital punishment; here, it decrees that capital punishment be administered by the blood avenger, or in his absence, a proxy appointed by the court.54

15 The matter must be confirmed by the testimony of two witnesses: There are two types of witnesses in Jewish law: attesting witnesses, who must be present when a particular legal procedure occurs in order for it to be considered legally valid; and testifying witnesses, whose purpose is to testify in court that they have witnessed some act, thereby substantiating its factualness. An example of the first type of witnesses is those that must be present at a wedding ceremony or at divorce proceedings in order for these to be valid; an example of the second type of witnesses is the case described in this verse: witnesses to a crime.

Thus, the implication of the words “the matter must be confirmed” in this verse changes subtly when applied to either of these two types of witnesses. In the first case, they mean “the procedure will be considered legally valid”; in the second case, they mean “the act will be considered to have happened.”

The spiritual analogues of these two types of witnesses are the two types of witnesses that attest to and testify to the absolute transcendence of God’s essence. To explain: no testimony per se is required in order to prove the existence of the immanent Divine power that sustains creation; it is enough for us to contemplate the order and operation of nature to deduce that such a power exists. In Job’s words, “By [contemplating] my flesh, I behold God”55—just as the soul fills and animates the body, so must there be a Divine energy that fills and animates the universe.56 No testimony is even required to substantiate the existence of the transcendent Divine power that brings reality into being; just as the mind accepts the reality of immanent Divinity, it understands that that Divinity cannot be the fullest expression of God’s potential. Intellect itself concludes that there must be an aspect of Divinity that transcends our intellect, that lies beyond our ken.

What does require testimony is the notion that God’s essence is totally abstract, that it is beyond not only our ability to understand but our ability to conceive. The veracity of this notion must be established by “witnesses” because there is no logical imperative that this should be the case.

There are two types of witnesses to this notion:57 attesting and testifying. The Torah refers to “heaven and earth” as God’s testifying witnesses.58 Relative to individual human beings, heaven and earth evince infinity. The heavenly bodies exist “eternally,” that is, not exhibiting any discernible change throughout the generations, and although the individual creatures of earth do not live forever, their species persist “forever,” that is, again, without any discernible change throughout the generations. Thus, heaven and earth testify that there is a (relatively) infinite power embedded within creation, and since all creation is created by God, this relative infinity must derive from a true infinity within God, indicating that there is an aspect of God that is infinitely beyond our ability to conceive.

The Torah’s attesting witnesses to the inconceivable nature of God’s essence are the Jewish people. Whereas heaven and earth only testify to God’s infinity, the Jewish people attest this infinity, i.e., they actualize it, so to speak. By studying the Torah and performing God’s commandments, the Jewish people introduce the ineffability of God’s essence into the physical world, paradoxically accomplishing the categorically impossible feat of expressing what is by nature inexpressible in this finite world.

Herein lies the subtle difference between the testimony offered by heaven and earth and the attestation offered by the Jewish people. While the testimony of heaven and earth does indeed allow the world to appreciate God’s infinity, it does not necessarily imply that the universe cannot exist apart from God. In contrast, the attestation of God’s infinity expressed by our study of the Torah and fulfillment of the commandments implies explicitly that God’s existence is the only true existence, that all other forms of existence are contingent upon His and that “nothing exists besides Him.”59

These two types of witness are reflected in the different ways we can approach our Divine mission in life. Most aspects of this mission make perfect sense, and therefore, a cursory reflection on the nature of human life, at most, is required to motivate us to dedicate ourselves to this mission enthusiastically. Furthermore, even the occasional need for self-sacrifice can for the most part be well-understood logically, since logic can admit that it is sometimes necessary to override logic, resorting to supra-logical means to accomplish logical ends. But the highest form of dedication to our Divine mission is unlimited, unconditional self-sacrifice that ignores logic altogether. Such self-sacrifice can only stem from the sense of self-identification with God that is wholly beyond the ability of the intellect to conceive.60

Chapter 20

19 Is the tree of the field a man: The wording of this phrase in Hebrew allows it to be understood not only as a question but also as a statement (“Man is a tree of the field”), and indeed, the Torah has already metaphorically referred to a righteous individual as a tree.61

The principal way in which a tree serves as a metaphor for a human being is that just as a tree grows and produces fruit, so are we expected to mature and be productive in life.

Of all the constituents of the human being that exhibit growth and maturation, the one capable of doing so most strikingly is our emotions: our likes and dislikes, our aspirations and dreams. When governed and trained by our intellect—the characteristic that elevates us above the other three natural kingdoms (inanimate, vegetable, and animal)—our emotions can mature so dramatically that they bear almost no resemblance to the infantile or base emotions we felt as children.

Furthermore, what distinguishes the plant kingdom from other forms of life is that plants must always be connected to their source of vitality—the earth—in order to remain alive. True, fish must remain in the water, but they can migrate from one body of water to another. In contrast, it is much harder to successfully transplant a plant. This is particularly evident with respect to trees, which remain alive and develop from year to year. Their ability to not only weather the changing seasons but thrive despite them bespeaks their strong connection to their life-source. Similarly, the emotions are more deeply rooted in the soul than is the intellect. They are therefore at the same time more fixed and more compelling than the intellect, which can flit from conclusion to new conclusion like an animal can move from place to place.

Therefore, it is specifically our emotions that betray how developed a human being we have become. Anyone can be gifted with superior intelligence or talent, but truly refined emotions are achieved only through dedicated efforts at self-betterment.

The sign that a person has attained some level of emotional maturity is that he or she has consciously decided to shed childlike self-absorption and become of some use to the world. The allegory for this maturity is the fruit-bearing tree. Unlike a barren tree, which merely impresses us with its stately presence or offers us shade (for which it sacrifices nothing), the fruit-bearing tree provides us with nourishment and delight at its own expense.

In this context, the Torah’s prohibition against cutting down fruit-bearing trees, together with the permission it grants us to fell barren trees, may be interpreted to mean that we should take care to seek instruction and inspiration from people who are not only intelligent and talented but who have made it a point to utilize their gifts for the greater good.

The emotions’ deeper rootedness in the soul as compared to the intellect’s is also reflected in the collective psychology of the Jewish people. We owe our commonality to our shared ancestry, being the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As we have seen, the three patriarchs expressed the three primary Divine emotions: loving-kindness, restraint, and mercy. Although we do possess a unique “Jewish intellect,” it is chiefly the emotions that we have inherited from the patriarchs that express our essential connection to them.

Thus, an immediate lesson from the tree-metaphor is that although some of us can live our lives as “fish,” totally immersed in our spiritual life-source, i.e., learning Torah and praying, most of us live our lives as “trees,” exposed to the elements and having to weather the varying spiritual climates that characterize the material world. As such, it is imperative that we have strong roots, i.e., that we ensure that we remain firmly rooted in the world of Torah and true to the heritage of our forefathers. By the same token, those of us whose lives are spent chiefly studying the Torah must realize that they must be not only “fish”—darting to and fro in the intellectual sea of abstract thought—but also “trees,” steadily growing as they refine their emotions, so that when they venture forth from the incubator of Torah, they will remain properly spiritual oriented.

(Once we define the tree-metaphor as referring specifically to the emotions, we can again interpret this verse in its plain sense, i.e., as a question: Of the four synonyms for “man” used by the Torah, the one used in this verse [adam] specifically emphasizes the superiority of the human being’s intelligence relative to that of other forms of life. In this context, this verse can be understood to mean, “Is adam a tree of the field?”—i.e., “Is a person’s superior intellect measured by the maturity of his or her emotions?” To which the answer is a resounding “yes!” because, as we have explained, the reason God granted us superior intellect is not to engage in intellectual exploits for their own sake but for the sake of positively influencing and refining our emotions.)62

Is the tree of the field a man: Carrying the analogy a step further, we note that fruit does not grow on the trunk of the tree itself, or even directly on its branches; it develops only out of flowers that bud off the tree’s branches. Nonetheless, fruit is nourished by the tree proper, and it is for that reason that the permissibility of cutting down the entire tree depends on the presence or absence of fruit. Allegorically, the tree proper represents abstract intellect, which, because it is not concerned with the implications of its conclusions, does not directly affect the emotions; whereas the parts of the tree from which the fruit directly grows represent concrete intellect, which directly affects the growth and maturation of the emotions.

The concrete intellect, although directly responsible for the development of the emotions, is insufficient in two regards: firstly, being so closely allied to the emotions, they can easily resist it. For example, when we are in an indifferent mood, our emotions can remain unimpressed by the efforts of the concrete intellect to steer them in the proper direction. Similarly, the concrete intellect can sometimes be influenced by the emotions instead of influencing them: our predisposition toward a particular emotion can prevail upon the intellect to rationalize that emotion.

Secondly, even when the concrete intellect does succeed in refining the emotions, it cannot transform them totally, since it remains tied to them. It has applied itself too intimately to the specifics of the particular emotion on which it is focused to enable it to transform that emotion altogether.

The abstract intellect, in contrast, is not vulnerable to these pitfalls. Being removed from the emotions, it can be neither easily resisted by them nor influenced by them. By the same token, being removed from any particular emotion, it can easily transform it, transplanting it, so to speak, into a totally different context.

This dichotomy also characterizes the inner and outer dimensions of the Torah. The exoteric dimension of the Torah, which is garbed in the issues and phenomena of the material world, can sometimes fail to refine us properly, and even when it does, it does not transform us into the Godly human beings we are meant to become. The esoteric dimension of the Torah, in contrast, abstracted from the material context of this world, cannot but refine us; furthermore, it is uniquely suited to transforming us by revealing our intrinsic Divine potential to manifest our innate holiness.63

Chapter 21

2 The Sanhedrin must go out: It can be readily understood why the court of the nearest city must be involved in the ritual of atonement for an unwitnessed murder: as part of the ritual itself, the judges must absolve themselves of any guilt of having not given him proper escort. Why, however, must the Sanhedrin, whose seat is in Jerusalem, trouble itself to travel to some far-flung outpost to participate in the ritual? What fault is it of theirs that this crime occurred?

The Midrash64 answers that, indeed, the Sanhedrin is responsible for the moral education of the nation; thus, they are quite responsible for such a crime, even if indirectly. This is a clear lesson for any of us who are in a position of influence: we must not be content to merely dispatch the tasks associated with our position; we must utilize our influence for the moral edification of the widest public possible.

Allegorically, the “slain” person out in the “field” is anyone who is a victim of either his own or society’s secular-materialist outlook, which cuts him off from the Torah, our source of true life and vitality. If anyone might question of what concern such an individual should be to those fortunate enough not to have fallen victim to such an outlook, the Torah here tells us otherwise. The Sanhedrin itself must assume responsibility for such a person, and the local authorities must provide him or her with a proper Torah education (“food,” as the Torah is our spiritual sustenance) and inculcate in him or her the need to perform God’s commandments (“clothing,” as the commandments protect us from spiritual coldness and shield us from negative influences). Following their example, we too must do our utmost to see to the physical and spiritual needs of our brothers and sisters in distress.65