The Torah’s system of Halacha is often frustratingly complex, but it’s also remarkably resilient. The ability of Torah Judaism to adapt throughout the ages is nothing short of amazing. Of course, the Divine origin of the system is the single greatest factor in this success. While other religions have struggled throughout the millennia with progress, Judaism takes it in its stride, because the system itself provides an important mechanism for this ancient culture and lifestyle to remain relevant as centuries go by. In every generation, the greatest Torah scholars are analyzing the latest technological breakthroughs and determining how Torah can co-exist with the newest science. And, of course, the source for this phenomenon appears in this week’s Torah reading.
The crucial verse is: If there arise a matter which is too difficult for you in judgment, whether it concerns blood against blood, plea against plea, or blow against blow, matters of dispute within your courts, you should arise and ascend to the appointed place chosen by God (Devarim 17:8). This vital statement immediately raises two areas which must be clarified.
First of all, what are the three areas of law which are being discussed? Clearly, there are many opinions but for our present purposes I will suggest: 1. capital crimes (Hebrew: DAM), 2. litigation (DIN), 3. assault (NEGA). So, on the surface we’ll dealing with legal disputes between citizens. On the other hand, there are many authorities who explain that our verse is also referring to ritual law issues, too. We’ll make believe that everyone’s right.
For me, the more fascinating question is how to translate the Hebrew term NIFLA, which I rendered ‘difficult’. Rashi suggests ‘distant’ or ‘hidden’. The Seforno explains that it means that the issue is finding the ‘authentic tradition’. The Netziv claims that the term describes the actual scholars involved and, therefore, means expert (MUMCHEH). The Malbim says that it means ‘distant from you’, which requires more time for researching the issue. Targum Onkelos goes for ITKASE (‘covered’).
Clearly, this term describing a difficulty causes its own problems. For the sake of this article, I’m going with Targum Yonatan: extraordinary. We’re using the word as we do in TEFILA. NISSIM and NIFLA’OT are miracles and wonders. The issue at hand, which is baffling our local court, is something brand new and revolutionary. In 1453, people asked what’s the status of a text printed by a machine? In the late 1800’s what’s the law for an electric light bulb on Shabbat? In the mid 1970’s, Reb Moshe Feinstein decided that images on a computer screen aren’t writing and even God’s name may be erased. Today, our greatest scholars are deciding when life begins and when it ends. Or, how do we determine parenthood when the fetus is carried by another. The list goes on and on, into an unknowable future.
Our verse is instructing us that we will always have Torah scholars capable of making the tough calls, and we must ascend to them for guidance. Historically, these geniuses sat in the LISHKAT HaGAZIT (hewn chamber) on the Temple Mount. But one of those difficult decisions was that the scholars themselves would continue to function in various exiles, first in ten stops from the BEIT HaMIKDASH to T’veryi’a. Later throughout the GALUT. I guess the highest place on earth is where the greatest Torah scholars sit and decide HALACHA.
There is another salient point about these Torah giants, which the Torah records: You must act according to the matter which they tell you (verse 10). This is the power of the Sages to institute new HALACHOT, like Chanuka. Right after that important Mitzva, we’re told: According to the Torah which they instruct you, act, never deviate from the matter, right or left (verse 11). I feel certain that this verse is discussing both the power of the Sages to legislate and the power to adjudicate and interpret the Torah.
This rabbinic power is fundamental to the continued existence of Judaism. As the Ramban pointed out: The necessity for this command to abide by the rulings of the High Court is very great. This is because the Torah was given to us in written form and it is well known that opinions cannot be in complete agreement concerning new contingencies that will arise. Many disagreements could very well lead to the single Torah becoming multiple systems (verse 11).
Adhering to the decisions of our Torah giants through the ages has kept the Jewish people a single entity. Those sects who deviated are gone and mostly forgotten. Challenging or deviating from these historic halachic norms is done at the peril of one’s connection to Jewish destiny.
We read these verses knowing that Yerushalayim isn’t specified in the verse because often the intellectual Jewish centers were outside the Holy Precincts. But we know the Torah meant YERUSHALAYIM IR HaKODESH as the optimal situation. I remember standing on Rechov Yafo on Shushan Purim in 1986. It was Reb Moshe Feinstein’s funeral. The mood was tragic. Reb Moshe was gone, Reb Ya’akov Kamenetsky had just died two weeks earlier, Rav Soloveitchik was back in Boston. One felt the seismic shift of Torah centrality from NYC to Jerusalem.
What a ZECHUT to live in the era when again we quote Yeshayahu: KI M’TZIYON TETZE TORAH. Out of Zion comes Torah (2:3)! Now we just have to adhere to the rulings, and await the next step.