The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40-plus-year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.
Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael that Hashem will appoint prophets like him to guide them. The next section commands us to appoint a king in the appropriate time. Why were these two commands juxtaposed to each other?
Rava presents three alternatives to define shomer l’pri, based on how long the protective shell around a fruit must remain attached to it. The peel must adhere to the object until either: 1) the object dies or withers; 2) the fruit reaches a minimal stage of maturity defined as either smadar or boser; 3) as long as the object cannot survive without the protective peel.
The concept of shmira is a prerequisite for other commandments as well.
There are many commandments where lack of performance constitutes bitul assay, nullification of a positive commandment. These include not wearing tzitzit, not eating in a sukkah, not bringing sacrifices, not building a Beit HaMikdash. Regarding the latter, we find that there is a commandment to guard the Temple, shmirat hamikdash. Rambam says that if one neglected to guard the mikdash he violates a negative prohibition. Paradoxically, we see that lacking something or not proactively seeking to attain it is far less serious than having something and not watching it properly. Not praying in a synagogue with a minyan is suboptimal. However, praying in a synagogue that desecrates kedushat beit haknesset violates the principle of shmira and must be avoided.
Shmira applies to people as well as the Temple. Chazal say that three partners are responsible for the creation and growth of an individual: parents, including a teacher, and Hashem. Each is critical to the development of a child, providing a solid foundation on which to build Torah knowledge and Midot. When Hashem created man, He said naaseh adam, We will fashion man. While Hashem provides the raw materials, it is up to the other partners, or shomrim, to supplement and nurture the body and soul. Why did Hashem say prior to the flood nichamti ki asisim, I (singular) regret having made man? Because the others abandoned the partnership, naaseh, and ignored their obligations, leaving man uneducated, evil and unwilling to yield to others or Hashem.
How long does man require shmira? Apparently, Judaism agrees with Rava’s first opinion; parents and by extension teachers must be attached to the child for his/her entire life. Notzer t’ayna yochal piryo teaches us that simply observing a tree through the window won’t protect the tree or guarantee it will blossom and produce fruit. The notzer, or shomer, must cultivate the soil, prune the tree, and toil extensively until he sees the fruits of the tree. The Torah says when an ox is born it must remain with its mother for seven days. Chazal comment that a newborn and old ox are both called shor. The mental capacities of the newborn ox are established at birth; the ox will not become more intelligent over time. A minimal period of time is required for its shmira. On the other hand, a child requires shmira from birth till death, as new questions regarding proper conduct and life constantly arise. The human being has a constant quest for knowledge that must be nourished by parents and teachers through lifelong education and guidance. Parents’ responsibility does not conclude with birth. They must ground the child with Torah, yirat shamayim, chesed. A person requires shmira till the last second of life.
Apparently, modern society has decided that the shmira period ends when a child reaches smadar, the earliest stage at which the fruit can be consumed, even though it is far from optimal ripeness. Teenagers today decide that they no longer require parental input and discard the shomer, their parents, and reject the advice they provide. Parents are too quick to relinquish their shmira responsibility. The combination produces the perfect storm of Juvenile and societal problems that have become the norm. Parents must remain engaged, to guide the child, teach him Torah and midot. It is their shmira responsibility, as partners with Hashem, to ensure a successful outcome. Lack of shmira is a precursor to a life of immorality and anarchy, void of Torah, mitzvot and chesed.
Aging is after all the inexorable process of dying. Removing or rejecting the protective cover hastens that process, regardless if it is a fruit or a person. Judaism emphasizes the importance of consulting with elders, Sh’al avicha v’yagedcha zkaynecha v’yomru lach, ask your father and he will instruct you, your grandfather and he will tell you. This applies not only to difficult halachic questions, but also to difficult personal challenges every individual confronts during his life. The Rav mentioned how his father consulted Reb Chaim when faced with difficult personal issues. The parent provides the shmira for all of life’s challenges. Regular Torah study is another shomer.
The importance of shmira is apparent in the story of Joseph who entered the house of Potiphar, and according to one opinion, was intent on relenting to the advances of Potiphar’s wife and sinning with her. Joseph had thought that his father had long since passed on and that he had been long forgotten. He rationalized his actions based on consulting the letter of the law and still was willing to sin. Suddenly the image of his father appeared to him, halting him in his tracks. How could he sin like this knowing how disappointed his father would be? Our vulgar, secular society tempts us regularly to act inappropriately. Then we see the image of a father, mother, teacher and realize how disappointed they would be if we acquiesced. This image is often more effective than the Shulchan Aruch in preventing us from sinning. As with Joseph, the parent still provides critical shmira long after losing contact or passing on.
Chazal say that even though permanent monarchy was given to the tribe of Judah, a member of any tribe could be a king in Israel, for example Saul and the kings of Israel, other than those from the house of David. Shevet Levi was the lone exception; they were enjoined from the monarchy. According to Ramban, the Hasmoneans ultimately lost the monarchy because they held onto it after their victory instead of turning it over to someone from Judah or another tribe. The role of Shevet Levi, priests and levites, was not limited to service in the Temple. They functioned as the judges and educators in the towns throughout Israel. Their job was to be the shomer for Bnei Yisrael. Halacha requires every town to appoint a teacher who will be capable of rebuking the local populace to ensure that they remain faithful to Torah and mitzvot. But even judges and educators require a shomer. The tzitz was the shomer for the kohen gadol that reminded him that he was in the presence of Hashem. The greater the role, the greater the need for a shomer.
The juxtaposition of the prophets to the kings in Parshat Shoftim teaches us that everyone, especially a king, requires a shomer to ensure that he follows the correct path. Every king had his prophet, his shomer. Saul and Samuel, David and Nathan, Solomon and Achiya HaShiloni, Elijah and Ahab, Isaiah and Hezekiah etc. Many of these prophets were from Shevet Levi. A king cannot be his own shomer. Alexander Yanai usurped the monarchy and the High Priesthood. Those roles could not coexist in a single person. Ultimately he and the Hasmonean dynasty fell. When the kings of Judah or Israel failed, it was because they did not pay attention to the prophet who rebuked or attempted guide them.
A false prophet distorts Hashem’s message. Rather than constructively rebuking, he offers an appealing but false message that obscures reality. Jeremiah spoke about the role played by the false prophets of his time in the Churban. A false prophet leads the people astray by urging them to trust in a bad deal and follow a dangerous path. Instead of a shomer, he is a shover, abrogating the partnership with Hashem, the ultimate Shomer Yisrael.