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Cantor's Comments - Parshat Shoftim                            August 22, 2020 - 2 Elul 5780

08/21/2020 08:11:44 AM


Hello everyone, and welcome to another video d’var torah.  As this very strange summer begins to come to a close, we are now turning our attention to a very strange back-to-school season.  Are kids going back to school in September?  For that matter, are teachers going back to school in September?  For how long?  What will classrooms look like?  How will teachers and students deal with masks and social distancing?  Are we heading for a spike in COVID-19 cases?  Will there be another lockdown?  We know that all of these questions have been the subject of much debate amongst our government representatives who bear the great responsibility of balancing our health and personal safety, with the needs for our society to continue to operate.  Some of us think that the plan for our kids and teachers to go back to school in September is ludicrous, while others feel that it is a necessity of the highest importance with manageable risks.  Of course, only time will tell which approach is the wiser.

It’s the unfortunate nature of wisdom that sometimes it can only be revealed in retrospect.  And it is even more often true that by the time we realize that we are the ones who’ve been proven wrong, we’ve dug in our heals so forcefully that we find ourselves in the position of having to justify all kinds of horrifying things before we finally relent, that’s assuming we ever do.  Unfortunately, it’s human nature to be stubborn, and that’s mostly because being wrong sucks.  But sometimes the human instinct to protect our ego can be so strong that we would rather destroy ourselves and others with us rather than admit to our mistakes.  

This week’s parsha is Shoftim.  Moses continues his final speech to the assembled Israelite nation, laying the foundations for the Israelite justice system.  Tzedek tzedek tirdof, true justice shall you pursue.  The Israelite nation shall appoint wise judges to adjudicate disputes, and when a person is accused of a capital offense, they can only be convicted on the testimony of at least two eye witnesses.  Moses also foresees that the Israelite nation will one day wish to appoint a king, and when that time comes, the Israelite king shall be bound to Torah and the rule of law; the king shall be humble under God and never amass too much wealth, too many horses or too many wives for himself.  It sounds, for a moment, like quite an idyllic framework for a benevolent king who serves his people, rather than a ruthless king who forces his people to serve him.  It sounds like a good king, who is wise and kind, a king like Solomon, the builder of the first Temple.  But then we think to ourselves, wait a second, didn’t king Solomon have something like a thousand wives?  Was that right?  Wait… how’s that possible?

In the first book of M’lachim, or Kings, chapter 11, verse 3, it states, “He [King Solomon] had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines”.  And a few verses earlier the Tanach boasts that he had “1400 chariots and 12,000 horses”.  And there are several verses that also describe King Solomon’s great wealth.  While it is true that Moses didn’t say exactly how many wives should be considered too many wives, or how many horses are too many horses, we can simply just point out that the medieval commentator, Rashi, seems to think that for whatever reason, Moses meant that 18 wives should be the cutoff.  I’m not here to argue exactly how many wives I think are too many, but let’s just all agree that 700 wives and 300 concubines is a lot more than 18, and we’ll be content to say that Moses would likely not have approved.  So how, then, if King Solomon was clearly in violation of the Torah, are we supposed to hold him in such high esteem?  Solomon the Wise, author of the Song of Songs, the book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Solomon, the king of peace, who’s name means peace, Solomon the servant of God who built the first great Temple in Jerusalem?

The answer depends upon how stubborn we are willing to be.  If we take an honest look at the Tanach, it gives us a very human answer.  King Solomon was not the perfect king that epitomizes the unified golden era of Israelite history.  The text describes how King Solomon’s faith was not as strong as his father, King David’s, and that his lust turned him away from God and he even began to practice forms of idolatry.  However, if instead we wanted to preserve the iconic image of King Solomon the Wise, then the rabbis of the Talmud offer this story, an excerpt of the long series of altercations between King Solomon and Ashmedai the Demon King… and before I begin, because there will be those who don’t believe me, you are welcome to look up the story for yourself in Masechet Gittin, page 68, amud bet.

Ashmedai the Demon King came before King Solomon and said, “take off the magical protective chain and ring enchanted with engraved name of God, and I will show you my strength”.  Solomon removed his chain and ring and gave them to Ashmedai who swallowed the ring and grew until he placed one wing in the Heavens and one wing on the earth.  He threw Solomon a distance of four hundred parasangs (equivalent of 2400 km).  With Solomon deposed from the throne, Ashmedai assumed the visage of Solomon and took his place.  Ashmedai then demanded of the queens to engage in forbidden sexual conduct, and when the sages of the Sanhedrin learned that the disturbed king had even commanded his own mother, Batsheva, to engage in relations with him, they understood that this was an imposter and not actually Solomon.  The Sanhedrin brought Solomon to the royal palace with a new chain and signet ring engraved with the God’s ineffable name, and when Solomon entered, Ashmedai saw him and fled.

It’s a wonderfully bizarre legend, and one that is actually quite beautiful and enlightening if we imagine that the rabbis of the Talmud were actually trying to understand and discuss mental illness, while lacking the medical knowledge that we have today.  I also find it most interesting that their approach is actually consistent with modern psychology in that we are supposed to treat mental illness almost as though it is a different entity that is interfering with a person’s healthy brain function, sometimes to the point that a person may not even be responsible for his or her own actions.  In the end, however, the Tanach teaches that it was due to King Solomon’s personal failings that ultimately led to the fracturing of the united Israelite Kingdom, and this, like it or not, is part of Solomon’s legacy. 

So who is King Solomon to us?  Is he King Solomon the Wise who was temporarily replaced by Ashmedai the Demon King?  Or is he Solomon the great ruler, who was also a human being who likely suffered in his later years from mental illness, who failed to keep the laws of Torah, who became an apostate, turned to idolatry, and whose actions led to the end of the united kingdom of Israel?  Yes, there is certainly much to learn from the rabbis’ story of King Solomon and Ashemdai, but it is not the kind of lesson that saves a civilization from a mentally ill leader, and the more we insist on a fundamentalist approach to our own beliefs, the more we risk finding ourselves 2400 km away from reality.  As get closer to the end of the summer, I wish for us all in this next phase of the COVID-19 era, clarity of mind in our thoughts and beliefs, willingness to change and adapt our actions and behaviours, and dare I say, a sense of cautious optimism for the future as we keep in mind the adage, “it is far better to admit that one does not know where one is, than to go about adamantly insisting that one is where one is not.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782