God wants us to act ethically

The Torah never explicitly designates where the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) is to stand. In fact, it never mentions the city of Jerusalem by that name at all. At every point, the Torah says, המקום אשר יבחר- “The place that He will choose.” At some future point, the Torah promises, God will choose a geographic location for His dwelling place.

The phrase “מקום אשר יבחר” (“the place that he will choose”) appears 22 times in the Torah. In 21 of those instances, the pronouns refer to G-d and Jerusalem. He—G-d—will choose a place—Jerusalem. Once, in our Sedra of Ki Tetze, they do not:

לֹא תַסְגִּיר עֶבֶד אֶל אֲדֹנָיו אֲשֶׁר יִנָּצֵל אֵלֶיךָ מֵעִם אֲדֹנָיו.
עִמְּךָ יֵשֵׁב בְּקִרְבְּךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בַּטּוֹב לוֹ לֹא תּוֹנֶנּוּ.

You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.

Here, “he” is the slave and the “place” is his chosen place of refuge. Of all the possible formulations, why did Moshe in his speech (which comprises the bulk of the book of Devarim) choose this particular wording, which clearly hearkens back to the mentions of the Beit Hamikdash?

Rabbi Amnon Bazak, a renowned teacher of Tanakh in Israel, suggests that Moshe meant to convey a profound message through his careful selection of words. Throughout his great speech to the Israelites, Moshe repeatedly emphasized the social, ethical, and moral aspects of the Mitzvot. He especially emphasized the concern for the weaker members of society, among them the slaves and maidservants. The simple interpretation of this prohibition, of returning an escaped slave to his master, is that it too is a moral precept: if the slave fled his master, he probably suffered and was treated very poorly, and therefore we are prohibited from returning him to his place of suffering.

By using this unique phrase, מקום אשר יבחר, Moshe thus highlights the correlation between the Jewish people’s ethical conduct and the Hashra’at Shekhina, the manifestation of G-d’s presence, among them. As if to say, “If you wish for G-d to indeed manifest His Divine Presence among you ‘in the place that He will choose,’ then you must also be morally upstanding ethical people, especially in the way you treat the weaker members of society. Among other things, you must allow an escaped slave to dwell with you ‘in the place that he will choose.’”

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, let us ask ourselves, are we living up to this challenge? Would G-d be proud, so to speak, to dwell among us? How are we treating the weaker members of our society? What can we do better – how can we continue to improve our ethical conduct, relationships, and our commitment to the ethical aspects of mitzvot as well as the ritual ones?


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