Parashat Shoftim

Dedicated in Honor of My Wife Susan by Lou Massry

Parashat Shoftim

The first passuk in Shoftim begins with these words: “Shoftim veshotrim titen lecha bechol shearecha asher Hashem elokecha noten lecha.” The literal translation is: “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your [city] gates, which Hashem, your G-d, gives you.”

Rambam sounds an alarm in his comment on this passage. He explains that if not for these laws and people’s respect for them, and without judges to hear cases between brothers, then the downfall of the nation would not be far behind. Such a breakdown would lead to anarchy, with the Torah being fragmented into many Torahs, has veshalom.

Judging Fairly

Civilization today is the beneficiary of many things from our Torah, including the court system, as the Seven Laws of Noah dictate. How careful we must be when we judge our fellow man. Although we are not allowed to judge others — because Hashem is the only true judge — subconsciously we do.

The following story exemplifies how we should never prejudge a situation. An elderly woman boarded a crowded bus in Israel. There weren’t any available seats, so she was forced to stand. Next to her sat a young girl. The girl looked out the window pensively and ignored the woman beside her. The elderly woman expected the young girl to offer her seat, but the girl — though obviously aware of the situation — did not look up.

The elderly woman said, “She’s not even looking at me, it’s mindboggling. Today’s teens are so… I don’t know what’s up with them… but they’re certainly not thinking about me!”

The other standing passengers nodded their heads sympathetically.

“I’m so confused,” the older woman said, unable to understand why even after the rudeness was pointed out to her, the young girl still refused to get up and offer her seat.

Instead, the girl continued to stare out the window, acting totally oblivious to the conversation that was brewing around her.

A man standing next to the woman said, “Frankly, it’s scandalous.”

“It’s not even crossing her mind that maybe…” the critical woman continued.

A second man concurred. “There’s no respect.”

The woman said, “Maybe it’s a lack of manners. What a generation…” she sighed, expanding her criticism from the girl to all her imagined peers.

Just then a woman across the aisle wrapped up a call on her cell phone. “I have to go,” she said, shutting her phone and rising. She opened a folded wheelchair, and proceeded to help the young girl, who was evidently her daughter, into the wheelchair.

The passengers — who had been so free with their loud and vocal criticism — were silenced, and it was obvious from the look on their faces that they were deeply ashamed of themselves and regretted every word they’d uttered.

We learn from this story that we must be aware of our tendency to judge others, and of the consequences that this tendency has. First, we feel free to judge. That leads us to communicate our judgment to others. Once we have taken that road, it won’t be long before we are doing the same thing in public. It is then an easy next step to humiliating the object of criticism in public. The elderly woman did not hesitate to complain about the girl in front of everyone, on a crowded bus. She was so sure of her own judgment, so sure that she was right. Because of her, the others joined in on the negative judgment.

We are not omniscient — only G-d is. We are never in possession of all the facts, and we have to be humble and acknowledge that. As the Talmud says, “One who shames another in public, causing the blood to drain from his face, is comparable to a murderer(Baba Metzia 58b).”

Not only did the people on the bus gang up against an innocent girl who was unable to give up her seat, no matter how much she wished to do so, they also embarrassed her in front of everyone.

Always consider what you are saying and think before you speak. As Rav Dov Ber of Mezeritch said, “Eagerness is a precious thing for all of man’s body parts, except for the mouth and the tongue.”

One of the Baal Shem Tov’s most famous teachings is that, “Your fellow man is your mirror.” He explains that when a person is pure, they will see purity in others. If they see a blemish on others, they are encountering their own imperfection. “Whoever judges his fellow, whether for the good or the bad, simultaneously reveals his own verdict.”

Guarded Gates

The Shela Hakadosh and the Hida both site a similar interpretation. They comment that the “judges in all your gates” is a reference to the judges at the gates of our bodies. Our ears have ear lobes which act as gates to protect us from hearing lashon hara; our eyes have eyelids, so we don’t see what we shouldn’t be looking at; and our mouth has two gates, our teeth and lips, to protect us from speaking lashon hara and to also protect us from eating food which is not kosher.

We may feel that we are in total control of our behavior and there is no danger of being influenced by the things that we hear or see around us. That’s a big mistake, because everything we are exposed to in the media and which surrounds us has a tremendous direct and subliminal influence on our senses. According to Rabbi Twersky, many studies have conclusively proven that children who are exposed to violence on television are more prone to violent behavior. Seeing or listening to immoral stimuli will influence our moral values. As the Torah warns us in parashat Shelah, perek 15 passuk 39: “This (tzitzit) shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray.”

“The hands of the witnesses shall be the first upon him to put him to death... You shall remove the evil from your midst (17:7).” The author of the Ohr Same'ach, points out that it is specifically those who witnessed a crime who must be the ones to execute the death penalty on the transgressor, because witnessing someone committing a sin and continuing to lead an undisturbed existence is likely to desensitize that person to the enormity of the transgression. Hence, "The hand of the witness shall be the first upon him to put him to death," in order to reinforce the witness's fear of and aversion to the sin that he has witnessed.

This teaches us the importance of living in a place of Torah, where we are not exposed to forbidden sights and sounds, such as chillul shabbat. Anyone living in a far-from-ideal environment for whatever reason, who is not thus shielded, must remove the evil from his midst by constantly eradicating it from his heart and mind in order to minimize the effect it has on him.

Just like witnessing chillul shabbat desensitizes the witness to the ramifications of mechalel shabbat, so does witnessing injustice and corruption desensitize us to these things and cause that person to think it’s okay to live in a sinful environment. It’s just like today how we’ve become desensitized to all these mass shootings that we hear in the news on a daily basis.

Why So Many Tragedies?

In Devarim (17:8) the Torah tells us: “If a matter of judgment is hidden from you…matters of dispute in your cities — you shall rise up and ascend to the place that Hashem, your G-d shall choose.”

The simple interpretation of the verse is that if a person has a halachik question or disagreement in any monetary or ritual matter that he cannot resolve, then the question should be brought to the Sanhedrin in Yerushalayim.

The Ari Hakadosh offers further insight into this verse. The word used for “hidden from you” is yipaleh, which literally means “that causes wonder (peleh).” According to the Ari, this refers to wonderment in understanding Jewish history. When a person looks at Jewish history he wonders, why have the Jewish people suffered so much?

The midrash says, “It says in your Torah ‘An ox or sheep, it together with its child shall not be slaughtered on the same day’ (Vayikra 22:28), but how many Jewish parents and children were killed on the same day?”

In other words, the midrash is asking: How is it that terrible things, like the events of Tisha B’Av, happened to the Jewish People? We can expand on that question as we look at the centuries that followed this midrash. How did a Spanish Inquisition happen? How did the pogroms happen? How did the Holocaust happen?

This is the meaning of the verse “If a matter… is hidden from you” — the event will be so hard to fathom, that it defies every type of rhyme and reason.

Then the verse gives us the answer: “Matters of dispute (divrei rivat) in your cities.” The cause for these tragedies is mahloket!

The Talmud tells us in Yoma 9b that the first Temple was destroyed because of the three cardinal sins of murder, idolatry, and incest, while the second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred.

The Talmud asks: “Which sin was worse?” The reply is: “Look at the Sanctuary for proof.” The fact that a Second Temple was built a relatively short time after the destruction of the First Temple; while the Second Temple has still not been rebuilt proves that the latter sins were worse than the former sins. So, we see that baseless hatred is worse than murder, idolatry, and incest all together!

The Ari says that the cause for the historical events which cause us wonderment at our misfortune is “matters of dispute in your cities.” This shows us how dangerous mahloket is.

The cure, he goes on to explain, is found the next part of the verse: “You shall rise up and ascend to the place that Hashem, your G-d shall choose.” The place that G-d shall choose is Yerushalayim, which can be translated as “The city of shalom — peace.” This is the cure: an end to dissention and dispute among us. We must have harmony and peace among us!

Our Rabbis

The parasha goes on to say, in perek 17 passuk 9: “Ubata el hakohanim haleviyim ve’el hashofet asher yihiyeh bayamim hahem —You shall come to the kohanim, the leviyim, and to the judge who will be in those days.”

Rashi comments on this that even if the Rabbis of our days are not equal to the Rabbis of previous days, we must obey them, because all we have are the Rabbis and judges of our time. Rabbi Shmuelevitz expands on this to say that Hashem will always provide us with Rabbis and leaders who are suited to our particular generation. In other words, the Rabbis that we have today are tailor-made for us.

So don’t think for a minute that it would have been better if we lived in another time when we would have had different Rabbis who would have guided us differently, because Hashem ensures that we have the Rabbis we need and who are perfect for the needs of our generation.

There’s a story that’s not unique to our community about a man who walked to shul on Shabbat mornings and then hired a driver to take him to his store. One Shabbat, a friend of his approached him after shul, and said, “Please come to my house and have a drink and some mazza with me and then go to work.”

The man accepted the invitation. The visit was very enjoyable, and he got carried away and became a little light-headed from the liquor. He therefore decided to stay home from work that Shabbat.

The next week, his friend made the same offer. But this time he declined, saying, “I’m sorry, but I can’t let what happened last week happen again.”

His friend insisted, “Just come for ten minutes and then you can go to work.”

Again, he agreed, and again, he never made it to work. From that day on, he became a committed shomer Shabbat!

Be Wholehearted with Hashem

Lastly, it says, “Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha – You shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your G-d (18:13).” Rashi comments on this that we should follow Hashem with perfect faith, without feeling that we need to know what will happen in our future.

Alshich interprets this passuk to mean that we should be sincere in our observance of Torah, even when we are alone with G-d and no one else is around to see what we are doing! Our devotion to Hashem should be whole and not fragmented. If you do some things for G-d and other things for yourself, then you are not being wholehearted with G-d. Some people may act very religious in shul and other public places, but in the confines of their home they can stray from that religious facade. Maybe they have a temper at home or don’t give proper attention to their family. Or they might be diligent in their prayers but ruthless and unethical in their business dealings.

We have to know that Hashem sees us, and only He is our ultimate judge, so we never have the right to judge others. This is especially important at this time. We are in the month of Elul, and with each passing week we are getting closer to the days of judgment by the ultimate Judge, Hashem! The passuk reinforces this: “Be wholehearted with Hashem.” In other words, we must be wholehearted with ourselves, and always have Hashem in our thoughts, every second of the day, so that we can be one with G-d and not stray from that path of emmet (truth).

Rabbi Diamond always taught us that one way to accomplish this wholeheartedness is to perform an act of hessed each day without anyone ever knowing about it. You will then truly feel one with Hashem!

May we seek only justice between our fellow Jews and avoid distorting justice in any way. May we also guard the gates of our bodies to keep harmful, forbidden influences from entering our lives and the lives of our families. May we also find it in ourselves to be wholehearted with Hashem and look for opportunities to do acts of kindness for others without anyone knowing about it.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey

Discussion Points:

· Did you ever think negatively of someone, only to have it become clear later that they were right?

· If G-d suddenly materialized next to us and followed us around all day, would our day look any different than it does now?

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