Parshas Shoftim

A Matter of Personal Judgment


Judges and officers should be given to you in all your gates which Hashem your G-d gives to you to your tribes, and they should judge the people righteously. (Devarim 16:18)

"This verse was placed next to the mitzvah of "three times, etc." to teach that, even though there is a mitzvah to come up three times a year and appear before G-d-where the Great Sanhedrin convened on a permanent basis-still, judges should be appointed and the Bais Din before Hashem should not be relied upon solely, because one should not delay judgment until then." (Ohr HaChaim)

In other words, this mitzvah of appointing judges and officers is to make sure that due legal process is not delayed. Can you imagine what the line-ups would be like if all the court cases from around the country were only adjudicated three times a year in Jerusalem? The entire holiday would be spent just waiting for the chance to present one's case before the Sanhedrin!

However, once the Ohr HaChaim HaKodesh has made the connection between last week's mitzvah of the Shalosh Regalim and this week's mitzvah to appoint judges, perhaps we can also derive an important lesson from the connection. For that, we have to borrow from the Pri Tzaddik on this week's parshah.

The Pri Tzaddik quotes the Midrash which says: the rabbis said that the officer should be like the judge, who should be in place of the lashes. In Toras Kohanim, it says "the judge reproves himself," and this is in place of lashes. This is why it writes, "Judges and officers should be given to you ..." as if to say, that you should be your own judge and officer-a judge to put words of Torah into your heart and an officer to remind yourself that there is a punishment for wrongdoing.

The Pri Tzaddik adds that this is also why the language of "gate" is used. The Talmud says:

Any person who knows Torah but lacks fear of heaven is like a gateman who possesses keys to the inner chamber, but lacks the keys to the outer chamber. (Shabbos 31b)
Getting to the essence of Torah, to such an extent that it can have the appropriate impact on a person means passing through "gates," in this case fear of G-d and the gate of Torah itself. If one only focuses on accessing the second, innermost gate, he may get the key, but a lot of good it will do him. For, as Dovid HaMelech wrote:
The beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d. (Tehillim 111:10)
Therefore, the Torah adjures each and every Jew-which is why the "you" in the posuk is in the singular-to establish "judges" and "officers" at every gate. For, each on its own is only a part of the overall outlook a Jew is supposed to have; a Jew must combine fear of G-d with the learning of Torah to be a complete Jew.

It is this that provides an interesting link to the mitzvah to come up to Jerusalem for the Three festivals. Aside from celebrating the holiday, which could easily be done at home, the Jewish people came up to the Temple to recharge their spiritual batteries. It was a time to be "seen" by the Master of the Universe, which had the same effect on a person as a judge or officer, and then some. Being in the presence of the A-lmighty, who knows all including the secrets of one's heart was enough to make anyone wake up to the need to grow spiritually. In a very real sense, coming up for the chagim was like passing through the gates of fear of heaven and of Torah at one time.

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Hashem your G-d will raise for you a prophet from amongst you and from your brothers like you, and to him you must listen. (Devarim 18:15)

Even if he tells you to transgress a mitzvah from the Torah, like Eliyahu at Mt. Carmel-every situation according to its need. (Yevamos 90b)

The general principle is that if it is against our "nature," it is a commandment. This is what the Talmud says:
I created the yetzer hara (evil inclination), and I created Torah as its spice. (Kiddushin 30b)
We don't have to be commanded to eat, or to sleep, or to enjoy any of the physical comforts we enjoy-that comes quite naturally to us. However, to love one's brother as himself, or to keep Shabbos (the way G-d says to keep it), or to observe the laws of kashrus, or any of the other moral aspects of life; that is something altogether different, and for those we need to be commanded.

Where does listening to a prophet to override a mitzvah fit in?

Historically, it would seem that nothing is more natural to the yetzer hara than to break the Torah, which is why the keeping the mitzvos of Torah helps to control it. When we listen to the yetzer tov (good inclination) and do what we want to do rather than what we feel like doing, then we "mature" our yetzer hara and make it more like its positive counterpart, the yetzer tov.

However, so many Jews have been quite happy, over the generations, to listen to false prophets, and still do quite blissfully (be they religious leaders or financial ones)! If so, then why would the Torah need to command us to listen to the prophet who tells us to do what we tend to do naturally?

The answer to this question comes in the Talmud's example of Eliyahu HaNavi at Har Carmel. Anyone who knows Eliyahu knows that he was one of the most zealous leaders the Jewish people have ever known; after all, he originated as Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen, who killed Zimri in an act of zealousness back in the desert (Bamidbar 25:7).

What made Eliyahu stand apart from the false prophets of his time, among other things, was that he was intensely religious. He epitomized Torah-observance, and even when he sacrificed outside the Temple to make his point to the followers of the Ba'al, his own personal life remained a shining example of self-sacrifice for Torah. His was the old-fashioned Judaism that could be traced back to Mt. Sinai ... and by implication, to accept him meant to follow his example.

Not so the priests of Ba'al, or any of the other false Jewish leaders over time. Whatever they have said, and whatever they have preached, the message has always been the same: You can be religious without following the Torah, and THAT was a message people wanted to hear. Once they heard that message, complying with the anti-Torah message was just a way to prove one's belief in the false prophet.

However, when it comes to real prophets, whose message has been one of a need for spiritual growth, their Divinely-commanded deviations from Torah were seen as reasons to discount their messages-proofs, they wanted to say, that the real prophet was in fact a false prophet. Therefore, the Torah has to warn us to not only listen to them, but to see their deviations not as a reason to discount the authenticity of their prophecy, but instead, as a reason to heed their message and return to Torah-observance.

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The [need for the] Eglah Arufah is only because of stinginess (tzarei ha-ayin), as it says, "They will answer and say, 'Our hands did not spill this blood' " (Devarim 21:7). (Sota 38b)
Last year, I discussed the concept of the heifer whose neck was broken (when a person was found murdered outside a city) in some depth. I want to reiterate a point that is important at this time of year as we approach Rosh Hashanah. It is something that the daily blowing of the shofar is supposed to arouse in us and which Rosh Hashanah dovening is supposed to refine.

We live in a somewhat insecure society, and with good reason. The elaborate alarm and property protection systems that are installed around the world (in New York people even remove their transmissions from their cars when leaving them for a while), testify to our concerns about break-ins and violations. Growing up in one of the safest cities in North America, it was never an issue for me to walk the neighborhood streets late at night. Now, one either stays home, drives a car, or walks very fast instead while nervously looking constantly in all directions.

Such an atmoshpere of anticipated abuse plays on one's nerves, and it makes judging fellow Jews to the side of merit a difficult mitzvah to fulfill. It is hard to simply "turn off" our psychological defence systems once within the protective walls of our own communities, or even the walls of our own homes. Very often, we carry our defensive street-attitude into our personal lives as well.

It even gets to the point that two Jews, who have seen each other for years but never really had a conversation, can walk by each other on Shabbos-and say nothing! Or during the week, one with a car might drive by another without a car, assuming that he or she wouldn't want the lift anyway. In the words of one psychologist, "There is such a fear of intimacy these days that people can live within the same community, and, for all intents and purposes, be thousands of miles away from each other."

Of course, laws of modesty must never be infringed. Some separations are not a function of insecurity, but rather, a function of maintaining a holy world. This psychologist wasn't referring to those situations where Torah-modesty has set the standard; he was discussing the relationships that, according to the Torah, should exist, but don't necessarily exist-relationships to which the mitzvos bein Adam l'chaveiro (mitzvos that deal with people-to-people relationships, such as "Love your neighbor as yourself"), speak directly.

Interestingly enough, the Torah is telling us that this reaction to our fellow Jews is not just a function of our modern, twentieth century society. Tzarei ha-ayin seems to be an innate human condition, which is why the Torah has addressed it. It is a function of the yetzer hara, something which modern-day crime may bring out, but didn't create. That is why (as was mentioned last year), the word arufah (back of the neck), is the same letters as the word Pharaoh (in a different order), who best symbolized the yetzer hara in person.

Today there is no Sanhedrin, so we cannot do the mitzvah of Eglah Arufah. However, that does not mean that we are free of overcoming our personal and communal tzari ha-ayin. Who knows how many Jews have died, or have at least suffered, because we haven't properly helped them when we could have? Next time you look the "other way," remember that we want to be able to say in the end of Days: Our hands did not spill this blood.

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We have officially entered Elul, the month in advance of Rosh Hashanah. As is mentioned often, the word "elul" can be taken as an acronym for the words "ani l'dodi v'dodi li"-"I am to My beloved and My beloved is to Me" (Shir HaShirim 6:3), emphasizing that this is a time for closeness to G-d, because, unlike the rest of the year, the King is coming down to meet us.

In the English version of the Yated Ne'eman ( 3 Shevat, 5758; January 30, 1998), there is a translation from the famous work, Kovetz Ma'amorim, by Rabbi Elchonon Wassermann, zt"l, who died sanctifying the Name of G-d, during the Holocaust. In this section, he address two topics, one which pertains to this week's parshah, and one which pertains to the month of Elul.

In the article, Rabbi Wassermann addresses the issue of faith in G-d (which is why it followed the feature article about "The 2001 Principle" website: http://www.jencom.com/2001), which is the part that addresses the issue of Elul. Within the article, the effect of bribery on a person's heart is explained, a topic of this week's parshah:

"Do not take bribes, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise!"
(Devarim 16:19)
Rabbi Wasserman writes:
"... The resolution of this enigma can be found in the Torah, which reveals to us all that is hidden. The Torah reveals something profound about human psychology when it commands, "Do not take bribes, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise!"

What is bribery? In legal terms, the smallest amount necessary to constitute a bribe is a 'shoveh prutah' (less than a penny), similar to the minimal amount for stealing or taking interest. The negative commandment, not to take a bribe, is directed not only to a judge, but to every man, even the wisest, even the most righteous, even to Moses himself. Yes, if it could be imagined, even if Moses would take the tiniest bribe, a prutah, his perception of reality would be distorted; he would be incapable of bringing forth a just ruling.

At first sight, this is nothing short of amazing. Can we imagine Moses or Aaron twisting the law and judging falsely merely for the sake of receiving such miniscule benefit? But the Torah itself testifies to the possibility, and the 'testimony of Hashem is trustworthy' (Tehillim 19:8).

We must therefore say that it is a psychological law: A person's will or desire influences his mind. Of course, it depends how strong the desire and how resolute the mind. A small desire will not exert much influence on a great mind, whereas on a lesser mind it will. A powerful desire will exert even more influence. On thing is certain: no matter how miniscule, the desire will always have effect on the mind. Even the tiniest desire can cause the greatest mind to waver if only a fraction ..."

This was merely a small excerpt from the translated article, which is worth seeing in entirety. Rabbi Wassermann was revealing how lack of belief in G-d does not originate with the intellect, but with the heart, which then influences the intellect to the point of disbelief. It is a very, very powerful point.

It is also a point of ponder quite seriously in advance of Rosh Hashanah. There are a million-and-one arguments "out there" for disbelief in G-d, and a bit fewer "in here" for why our belief in G-d doesn't demand this from us, or that from us, or whatever it is that we are trying to avoid from our obligation to serve The Holy One, Blessed is He.

But are they really arguments, or just excuses?

What's the difference? An argument originates in the mind, and then, perhaps, spreads to the heart. However, an excuse originates in the heart, from a faulty desire to avoid responsibility-and some of the physical discomfort or inconvenience that may come along with it-and then, by definition, spreads to the mind. And the most dangerous point of all is that, we don't always recognize the point of origin of our thoughts, that is, without some very serious introspection. There are a lot of very bright and talented people out there and in here who have intellectually jumped on the wrong "band wagon."

Elul Zman (as it is called in the yeshivah world), is the time for that serious introspection. The spiritual atmosphere is ripe. The King is coming, and the "air of teshuvah" this creates facilitates spiritual arousal. It is A time, in advance of THE time, to trace our beliefs back to their origins, and to straighten out any crooked ways we may have developed. It is time to give back the bribes, and to regain the vision of the wise.

Have a great Shabbos,
Pinchas Winston

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