שופטים

This week’s parsha details many different aspects of the future legal apparatus that the Israelites will establish upon entering Canaan.  The parsha ends (Devarim / Deuteronomy 21:1-9) with a peculiar concern, that of finding a (human) corpse in a field – i.e. not within town or city limits.  The Torah states that the procedure includes determining metrically which population center lies closest to the corpse, and then bringing a calf that has not worked to a fresh water source and breaking its neck.  In Rabbinical literature, this episode is therefore referred to as Eglah Arufah – the calf with the broken neck.  After the calf is killed, the texts states: “And then the priests the sons of Levi will approach, because they were chosen by Hashem your God to assist Hashem, and to bless in Hashem’s name – and by their mouths it will be, all disputes and all afflictions” (21:5, translation mine).  What exactly are the priests meant to be doing here?  What does it mean that by their mouths – or, in more modern English, ‘by their words’ – all conflicts and afflictions will be?  Sforno tries to answer this question by adding another dimension of leadership to a priest’s profile.  He states: “In the manner in which they [priests] are experts in human nature and human temperaments, as they and their fathers saw, and maybe they will recognize who was dirtied through this sin through scrutinizing his actions and misdeeds, and the matter will be revealed” (Sforno on 21:5, translation mine).  Not only are priests meant to be the ritual leaders of the people, connecting the Israelites spiritually to Hashem, but Sforno thinks that they were also trained to be expert diviners of character.  Simply through observing the people who occupied the town closest to where the corpse was found, the priests would have a legitimate chance at uncovering the culprit.  I think it is clear that Sforno thinks that a priest’s job includes being in touch with people, and that his spiritual leadership depends on this down-to-earth quality.

To be a leader

One must look at character

And know those you serve

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