From Rehem to Rahamim

The surest way to evaluate a society’s achievement at creating a system that is equitable to all is to examine how it is treating its most vulnerable populations. This week’s Torah portion, parashat Shoftim, concerns itself at both its opening and closing with how judges should conduct themselves in the world. The portion opens with an exhortation to the judges to “show no partiality” and “not to take bribes” (Deut 16: 19) and ends with a type of ritual or ceremony to determine some kind of societal responsibility for a corpse whose murderer cannot be ascertained.

In the mid section of Shoftim, justice to many segments is discussed. Priests need to have what to eat though they have no land of their own to cultivate (Deut 18:1), and the text proclaims the importance of keeping fruit trees extant when laying siege to a city (Deut 20:19). There are commands warning about the danger of false prophets and the ease of identifying them (Deut 18:20-22). Present here too are warnings to have zero contact with soothsayers, necromancers, wizards, and others who attempt to unite with any realm of knowledge beyond the limits of what humans need to know (Deut 18:9-14). The point of these last two commands is to protect those who are vulnerable and gullible from easy beliefs that will lead them astray.

Justice is about setting limits, and particularly crucial here is the demand that an army “call out in peace” to a city and offer it terms of surrender before beginning a war (Deut 20:10). At a time when many of us hope the new US leader will be female, the emphasis on being aware of women’s forms of leadership has been growing. The wise woman of Tekoa (II Sam 14) and the role of the wise woman in the story of Sheva ben Bikhri (II Sam 20: 13-22) in negotiating that the city should remain free so long as the head of Sheva Ben Bikhri was delivered, posit unique models of female negotiation. The command to call out to a city and try to, depending on the interpretation, offer terms of surrender or offer to negotiate, is a strategy I see as a female one, associated as it is with wise women in these other two stories in Tanach.

All must be held accountable parshat Shoftim teaches. The text tells us the way to control the king from evil and to check the his “rum li’vavo” (Deut 17:20), his up raised or haughty heart, is for him to take the text of this Torah and copy one for himself, to immerse himself in this text, physically align himself with it. In fact, at the end of Deuteronomy, the last positive mitzvah (command) of the Torah according to the medieval enumeration of the mitzvot, Sefer Hahinuch, is that each individual, not exclusively the king, should write a text of the Torah. “Now therefore write this poem/song for yourselves…” (Deut 31:19). Copying over this book – making his own copy and not relying on one made by his forefathers, the Babylonian Talmud tells us in Sanhedrin 21b, will enable the king to connect with teachings that will affect his life and behavior. It is the process of writing, in reliving and experiencing the ideas and feeling in the text, that will give the king the experiences necessary to govern. By copying over the text, something will be drawn out of the king, elicited from him that will counteract his inclination to be haughty.  The text is the tool by which the king can access the emotions that will enable him to rule with justice.  

A tale from a later king illuminates this idea that wisdom is about understanding that which is just, compassionate behavior. Let us consider the scenario that proves that King Solomon is truly a wise king. It is a story in which he gives a woman the tools to feel compassion for her child; the process of turning a prostitute into a compassionate mother. 

In I Kings chapter 3, Solomon has a dream and asks God for a “lev shomea li’shpot et amekha” (verse 9), an “understanding heart to judge your people.” After this request, two prostitutes come to the king for judgement. One might assume that these women would be dismissed; after all why should a wise and powerful king be bothered with these marginal types, earning their livings at the oldest profession.

But Solomon has other ideas. For the quality of mercy and compassion, “rahamim,” is the same as the word for womb in Hebrew, “rehem.” Until the encounter with the king, the prostitutes view their bodies and the lives they create in solely transactional terms. “What will you give me?” is what Tamar says to her father in law Judah in her guise as prostitute (Genesis 38:16), which sums up the profession as being solely about what the woman can get out of a relationship, not what she might need to put into it. However in the act of deciding which woman the baby belongs to, Solomon is able to awaken the mothers’ feelings of compassion.  “Then the women whose son was living spoke to the king because her compassion was aroused for her son and she said, ‘O my lord, give her the living child and surely do not slay it’ and this one said, ‘it should not be mine and not be yours, chop (gazoru) him up.’” (I Kings 3:26) The word “mother” is used only as the final word of the section, its culmination. The last verse of the section uses the root “sh-ph-t” , the same as in “Shoftim,” for justice, three times to emphasize this demonstration of the ability to dispense justice.

What Shoftim is teaching, and what Solomon puts into practice, is that mercy must be something available to all in a society. When a prostitute learns how to be a mother, when the attribute of compassion, rooted as it is in the female body and experience, is a value available to rich and poor alike, then a society is truly a just one. The text of the Torah, the same text a king must copy over as well as each individual Jew, creates a world where those in all corners, from the most central to the most marginalized, are able to both create and experience justice in a compassionate manner, befitting both a prostitute and a king.

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