Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues
Torah Attitude: Parashas Shoftim: Judges at the gates
“You shall appoint for you judges and officers in all your gates (of the cities) that HASHEM your G’d gives you.” What is the connection between bringing back judges and counsellors and removing sorrow and groaning? With a proper judicial system in place, people will not be depressed and will not feel they have a need that cannot be provided. “Counsellors” is a reference to the prophets who will teach the public the proper Torah way of life, how to be happy with one’s lot, and appreciate one’s portion in life. When Mashiach comes everyone will understand that life is not just about making a living and enjoying oneself. If we all make an effort to put our own officers and judges by our personal gates, this in turn will help to bring about the time when G’d will restore His kingdom and return the judges and counsellors and remove all sorrow and groan from us and the world around us with the coming of Mashiach.
Judges and officers
In the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion, it says (Devarim 16:18) “You shall appoint for you judges and officers in all your gates (of the cities) that HASHEM your G’d gives you.” The Torah here instructs the Jewish people regarding the importance of setting up a judicial system which includes judges who resolve civil disputes, as well as instructing people concerning their halachic obligations. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 2a-b) teaches that in the time of the Temple there should be a lower court of 23 judges in every town with a population of 120 families. In the Temple in Jerusalem was the seat of the high court consisting of 71 judges. These courts would employ officers to ensure that the people conducted themselves according to the Halacha and the judgments of the court. The Talmud (ibid 17b) teaches that a scholar may not live in a town unless it has a proper court. There are many detailed commandments in connection with appointing judges and how the proceedings of the court should take place. All of these were to ensure that the judges were knowledgeable and tolerant and that the people would afford them proper respect.
Groan and sorrow
In our daily prayers, there is a special blessing where we ask for the restoration of this judicial system. We ask that G’d should “bring back our judges as in the earlier time, and our counsellors as in the beginning. And remove from us sorrow and groan.” This seems strange. What is the connection between bringing back judges and counsellors and removing sorrow and groaning? Some commentators explain that by establishing a judicial system one enforces order and structure for the population. This in itself brings about a happy and satisfied society. Just like in education, children feel more secure and happy when they have proper structure and know the boundaries of what is permitted and acceptable and what is not. The same applies to adults. Not only do they understand the need for structure, they actually thrive on it.
Rabbi Abraham, the son of the Vilna Gaon, explains that “sorrow” is referring to depression, whereas “groan” refers to an expression by a person who is lacking his needs. This seems to indicate that with a proper judicial system in place, people will not be depressed and will not feel they have a need that cannot be provided. A society built on observance of Halacha will provide the poor with their needs and rightfully settle every dispute with the just laws of the Torah.
Counsellors and prophets
However, this only answers part of our question. The judicial system can take care of people’s material needs and guard their property from being wrongfully confiscated by others. But can it take care of people’s emotional feelings and their jealousy and cravings to amass wealth? If we analyze this blessing closer, we find that we are not only asking for the restoration of judges, but we ask for the return of counsellors as well. This is a reference to the prophets who will teach the public the proper Torah way of life, how to be happy with one’s lot, and appreciate one’s portion in life. In addition, they will counsel and give advice to individuals and guide every person to their particular purpose in life. In this way, people will feel special in their specific part they play in society, and will have no reason to be jealous or seek more than what is allotted to them. Everyone will clearly see that whatever they have is exactly suited for their purpose in life.
Aleinu and Mashiach
In the blessing prior to this one we ask that G’d shall “blow the Great Shofar for our freedom and raise a banner to gather our exiles … “ The order of these two blessings is crucial. First we ask for the gathering of the exiles, and only then that the judicial system shall be restored. In today’s society, where we live in a world focused on materialistic concerns, most people would find it very difficult to accept the advice of prophets whose priority will be our spiritual well-being. However, after the gathering of the exiles, with the coming of Mashiach, the world in general and the Jewish people in particular will clearly see the guiding hand of G’d in everything. As we say in the second paragraph of Aleinu, where we express our longing for this new order that will take place then: “May we soon see the splendour of Your might … to establish the world with the Kingdom of G’d and all people will call upon Your name … and all the inhabitants of the world will recognize and know You … and they will all accept the yoke of Your kingdom.” At that point everyone will understand that life is not just about making a living and enjoying oneself. Rather, making a living is only a means to the end of spiritual greatness, which gives a person the greatest enjoyment and satisfaction. For at that time, our priorities will change, and both the words of the prophets and judges will help us feel fulfilled and content. This is why this blessing continues and says, “And You G’d shall reign over us, on Your own, in lovingkindness and mercy.” For only when the Jewish people and the rest of the world accepts G’d’s sovereign kingdom will the time be ripe for the restoration of the judges and the prophets.
Gates of the head
There is a grammatical difficulty in the above verse: Why does it say “you shall appoint for you judges and officers”? It would have been sufficient if it said “you shall appoint judges and officers”. Rabbi Yeshayah Horowitz, known as the Holy Shelo’’h, answers this with a homiletical interpretation based on the Kabbalistic concept that the soul has seven gates: two eyes, two ears, the mouth and two nostrils. He explains that it says “you shall appoint for you” because this verse instructs every individual to put judges and officers by all these gates of the head. They can be used to benefit and elevate a person, but also have the ability to do a lot of damage, both to the individual and to people around him. Whatever we talk about and whatever we hear, the words and images we see, even the smells of our nostrils, all have tremendous power and can have a profound effect on us. We must put “officers” at each of our gates to guard our mouths and ensure that our speech does not harm anyone. In the same way we must take care that our ears should not listen to any gossip, and our eyes should not watch and read anything inappropriate. The Shela”h adds that we must learn to control our anger, that in the Kabbalistic writings is connected to the nose. We must further judge every situation and make sure that we only use our senses in a positive way for the benefit of ourselves and our fellow human beings. And, says the Shela”h, we must constantly check ourselves and pass judgment whether we have used the senses correctly, or have made mistakes that need to be rectified.
Bringing about the coming of Mashiach
By making an effort to put our own officers and judges by our personal gates we will help to bring about the time when G’d will restore His kingdom and return the judges and counsellors and remove all sorrow and groan from us and the world around us with the coming of Mashiach. Amen
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network