Elli Schwarcz -Elul: Personal Law and Order

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The month of Elul is a time reserved for reflection and repentance, as well as increasing our Torah study, prayer, and good deeds. As the final month on our calendar, it represents the last chance to prepare ourselves for the judgment of Rosh Hashanah. Fortunately, we actually learn an Elul lesson from this week’s Torah reading itself.

Parashat Shoftim opens with a fundamental commandment:

Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourself in all your gates that Hashem your God gives to you, by your tribes. And they shall judge the nation with righteous judgment.

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-Shoftim, 16:18

On its literal level, this verse commands us to appoint judges and officers, in order for to create the necessary framework for Torah living. A society without judges could see countless disputes, unresolved conflicts, and general confusion regarding personal responsibilities. One without the enforcement provided by officers, meanwhile, would engender no accountability- whether in the individual’s obligations toward Hashem (Mitzvah performance and abstinence from sin) or toward his fellow man.

Chassidic masters reveal a second reading of this passage. They base their novel explanation on an observation of the exact wording of the commandment in question.  

The imperative phrase, “You shall appoint,” while addressing all members of B’nei Israel, is nevertheless expressed in the singular form (“titen lecha”)- as if talking to one person rather than to all of B’nei Israel.**

The S’fas Emes explains that the Torah is indeed teaching us that every individual is obligated to appoint, so to speak, judges and officers within his own gates!

We must create our own personal law and order. S’fas Emes expounds as follows: our spiritual work must always be carried out through two prisms:

full acceptance of Hashem’s rule and our obligation to serve him, and the actual fulfillment of His will.

More specifically, one must first subjugate himself to Hashem, accepting that He is the Boss- and then be careful to follow His will.

In this way, our service of God parallels the concept of “judges and officers;” we recognize the ultimate authority of our Judge, and then ensure that we behave in line with this reality.

This concept brings to mind our recent discussion of the Ke’riat Shema. As we alluded to in that series, we first declare that Hashem is the Only Power, thus implying that we must serve Him. Following this, we then move to the obligations of loving Hashem and the associated commandments of tefillin and mezuzah.

Now, we know that we fulfill our Mitzvah to recite the Shemah by adding two more paragraphs; after saying the Shema Yisrael (and Baruch Sheim) and then the Ve’ahavta paragraph, we then read the Vehaya im Shamo’ah paragraph- which details what happens when we fulfill the Torah and what happens if we wouldn’t. After that, the Vayomer paragraph contains the command of Tzitzit (and mentions that God took us out of Egypt “so that He will be our God”).

Why do we read the aforementioned passages, and why in this particular order? The Talmud explains it for us:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha said: Why did [the Torah] put Shema before Vehaya im shamo’a? In order that one first accept upon oneself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and afterwards accept upon oneself the yoke of Mitzvot…

Gemara Berachot 2b

Again, this is the same idea we’re working on here: first we are charged to accept Hashem’s rule, and then we can focus on doing His bidding.

We may expand on this idea through the words of the ‘Ramchal’ (Rabbeinu Moshe Chaim Luzzato), in which he cites a Talmudic axiom:

It would be better for a person not to have been created than to have been created- but now that he was created, let him study his actions- and, some say, let him feel out his actions.

-Gemara Eiruvin 13b

This means that the lives we lead in this world are fraught with spiritual danger. We are here to be tested at every turn- will we do the right thing? Given our powerful Evil Inclination and the multitude of tests we face, avoiding sin is truly difficult.

What, though, is the significance of the conclusion? What does the Gemara mean, that Man must “study his actions?” And what, for that matter, is the alternative? Is the obligation to “feel out his actions” any different than the need to “study” them?

Ramchal addresses these questions, and explains that both expressions refer to specific, important tools used in our spiritual work in this world. These terms are in fact not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary aspects of one’s overall mindset:

The first thing- one must contemplate what is the true good that a person must choose, and the true evil that a person must escape. And the second- concerning the actions that he does, to see if they are in the category of good or evil.

-Mesilat Yesharim, Chapter 3

A person needs to be able to make a general accounting of his actions- based on what he knows to be right and true. It is essential to examine one’s overall approach to serving Hashem, recognizing where he may be going wrong, and understanding how he needs to straighten his aim- echoing the judge’s clarity of thought in issuing rulings after taking in the big picture. Even with this conscious effort, though, there’s much work to do. If one hopes to indeed be true to himself, he must be willing to feel out his specific actions as situations arise, turning them over in his mind to ensure that even his good intentions are not in fact being clouded and diverted by his latent desires or laziness. Thus, we might say that this relates to our personal judges and officers; there are two stages- or, in this framework, two dynamics- at work.
In fact, we can read this lesson into the rest of the passage we’ve been focusing on…

Do not divert justice; do not show favoritism, and do not take a bribe– for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous.
Justice, justice you shall pursue– so that you will live, and you will inherit the land that Hashem your God is giving to you.

-Shoftim, 16:19-20

According to what we’ve learned, we may read the verses as instructing the individual first to not be corrupt in his original thinking. Then, even if he has succeeded in this stage, he must still avoid getting caught in the personal biases– the ‘bribes‘ that represent a person’s own desires- that we must all face, which threaten to undermine our intellectual honesty. 

But why the repetition of “justice” in the second verse above? Perhaps it hints at both elements of our service of God. We must pursue justice in our decision making and in our perspective, and must again pursue it within our everyday actions.

Elul is certainly a time that speaks to both judges and officers. We must try to take a step back, to see the truth of our obligations- including what we’ve done until this point in the year, and what we know we must do to improve until Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At the same time, we need to find the areas in which our behavior has been inconsistent with the truth- and map out how we can improve.
May this be a time of growth for us all.

* They- and all who generally expound on Torah words in this fashion- would not negate the accepted reading of the verse, as “a verse does not leave its simple meaning.” Rather, they are suggesting that the Torah is also hinting at a secondary interpretation.

** Although it is not unusual for the entire nation to be referred to as one single entity, it seems the context surrounding this passage naturally lends itself to plural expression

Have a great Shabbat!

Elli Schwarcz

Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.

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