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Parshat Mishpatim


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Almost all of us are familiar with the ubiquitous presence of Secret Service agents surrounding the President of the United States. With their sunglasses, conservative suits and squiggly earpieces, their presence projects a warning to any person who ponders attacking the president. Yet, out of view, but always nearby, is a vehicle that contains five or so heavily armed and armored agents, ready to respond to an attack at a moment’s notice. These agents are members of the Secret Service CAT (Counter-Assault team) teams.[1]

The CAT’s mission is “to neutralize organized attacks, multiple attackers, snipers from a known location, and rocket attacks against the president of the United States through the use of speed, surprise, and violence of action” (Within Arm’s Length by retired Secret Service agent Dan Emmett, 2012, p.70). CAT teams today enjoy an international reputation for expertise and professionalism. While the need for them in motorcades and presidential public appearances is painfully obvious, it wasn’t always the case.

The Secret Service, ironically established by Abraham Lincoln on the day of his assassination, was originally created to combat the proliferation of counterfeit money in Civil War America. It was only after the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 that the Secret Service assumed the permanent assignment of protecting presidents. Throughout most of the 20th Century the Secret Service perceived the primary threat to the President as emanating from a lone gunman, since that is how presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy had been murdered.[2] In keeping with this threat perception the Secret Service’s leadership did not see the need for the development of a counter-terrorist unit. This was despite the fact that local police forces and many federal agencies already had established such units by the early 1980s.[3]

However, events in the 1980s finally forced the issue. With terrorism on the rise and America a target, the Secret Service leadership came to the realization that the lone gunman was no longer the sole or even primary threat to the president. Agents now had to be concerned with a well-planned terrorist attack consisting of several heavily armed assailants. Shift agents with revolvers would no longer suffice. It was this reality that led to the creation of CAT teams in the late 1980s. Initially, however, CAT teams were used only haphazardly. It wasn’t until 1992 that they became a part of the PPD (presidential protection division) and a permanent part of presidential security.

Leaders must stay in touch with what the current challenges and opportunities are for their organizations. The Secret Service leadership took too long to acknowledge the change in their mission. Only by the grace of G-d and the brave work of their agents did they avoid a major catastrophe. The shameful truth is that for much of the 1980s the Secret Service wasn’t ready.

Informed by this example, we can understand an additional reason for the Chazal quoted by Rashi at the beginning of this week’s parsha regarding the requirement that the Sanhedrin have its official seat near the mizbayach. The Rambam  (Hilchot Be’at HaMikdash 6:11) explains that the reason the Sanhedrin was situated within the confines of the Beit HaMikdash was to enable its members to be readily available to determine the halachic suitability of individual Kohanim to perform the Temple service. The Rambam’s ruling is based upon the Mishnah in Middot (5:4).This explanation presents a functional relationship and obvious necessity for the Sanhedrin’s location.

In light of the lesson from the Secret Service, namely, that leaders must be in touch with their people and their environment, and the Mishnah’s functional explanation, I believe we can suggest an additional related reason for the Sanhedrin’s location. Besides being the final arbiter of difficult legal cases and the licensing agency for Kohanim, the Sanhedrin was also responsible for the maintenance of the religious well-being of Bnei Yisrael. At times, to maintain a proper religious equilibrium, the Sanhedrin found it necessary to enact various laws, Takanot and Gezeirot. The essential difference between these two categories is that Takanot involved a law requiring the performance of a positive action whereas a Gezeirah required refraining from certain actions. The key determinants for such legislation were necessity and doability on the part of the people.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.


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