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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shoftim: Judges at the gate
“You shall appoint for you judges and officers in all your gates (of your 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 Parasha, it says (Devarim 16:18) “You shall appoint for you judges and officers in all your gates (of your 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 was 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: “Bring back our judges as in the early times, and our counsellors as in the beginning. And remove sorrow and groan from us.” 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. 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 made 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 feel that they have no needs that they cannot be provided with. A society built on observance of Halacha will provide the poor with their necessities and 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 how can it take care of people’s emotional feelings and jealousy, as well as their 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 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 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 previous blessing we ask: “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. Every day we express our longing for this new order as we say in the second paragraph of Aleinu: “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.” Then everyone will understand that life is not just about making a living and enjoying oneself. Rather, making a living is only a means to achieve spiritual greatness, which will give a person the greatest enjoyment and satisfaction. For at that time, our priorities will change, and both the words of our prophets and judges will help us to 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.” This refers to when the Jewish people and the rest of the world accepts G’d’s sovereign kingdom. For only then will the time be ripe for the restoration of the judges and the prophets.
Gates of the head
If we further analyze the opening verse of this week’s Parasha, we come across a grammatical difficulty. Why does it say “you shall appoint for you judges and officers”? It would have been sufficient had it just said “you shall appoint judges and officers”. Rabbi Yeshayah Horowitz, author of the Shela’’h, answers this with a homiletical interpretation based on the Kabbalistic concept that just as our head has seven openings, so does our soul have seven corresponding gates: two eyes, two ears, the mouth and two nostrils. He explains that when it says “you shall appoint for you”, it refers to that every individual must put judges and officers by their personal gates. For these gates have the potential to benefit and elevate a person, but they can also 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 be careful that our ears should not listen to any gossip, and our eyes should not watch and read anything inappropriate. The Shela”h adds that the ”officers” at our nostrils also represent the need to control our anger, as in scripture anger is connected to the nose (see last week’s Parasha Devarim 11:17). 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. The Shela”h concludes that we must constantly check ourselves to verify 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 “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.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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