05 Sep 2019 Parshas Shoftim/Elul: Appointing Judges for Ourselves
In this week’s parsha, Parshas Shoftim, the Torah famously instructs us: צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ – Righteousness, Righteousness shall you pursue, so that you may live and take possession of the land that Hashem, your G-d, is giving you (Devarim 16:20).
Rashi (ibid) comments: למען תחיה וירשת. כְּדַאי הוּא מִנּוּי הַדַּיָּנִין הַכְּשֵׁרִים לְהַחֲיוֹת אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְהוֹשִׁיבָן עַל אַדְמָתָן – The merit of appointing decent (lit. kosher’) judges is worthy to keep Israel alive and to settle them upon their land.
R’ Asher Weiss shlita teaches: “The Ketzos HaChoshen (1745,Ukraine-1813) notes that Rashi here stresses the great merit of appointing righteous judges, but does not actually mention the need for the Bnei Yisrael to abide by their righteous judgments. Would it not have been more appropriate for Rashi to say that the merit of practicing justice throughout the nation allows us to live and to take possession of the Land? What merit is there for the entire nation in the appointment of righteous judges?
“The Ketzos explains by drawing a comparison between two similar incidents in Tanach. In Parshas Vayeira (Bereishis 19) we learn of Sodom’s shocking cruelty towards their guests. In Sefer Shoftim, we find a story no less heinous, of a woman who was horribly murdered by the people of Givah (Shoftim 19). (In the former narrative,) The entire region of Sodom was uprooted, with no remnant or survivors left except for Lot, who was spared in Avraham’s merit. In contrast, (in the later narrative) the people of Givah did not suffer such destruction. How were they more deserving of Hashem’s mercy than was Sodom?
“The guilt of Sodom lay not only in their wickedness, but in their failure to establish a court of law to punish such wickedness. The Gemara states that names of the judges in Sodom were Liar, Deceiver, Forger and Corrupter of Justice. Their legal system supported evil, until it actually became an ideal and a way of life. Therefore, there was no hope of reforming them and they had to be destroyed.
“The people of Givah, although they were evil, had a righteous legal system designed to punish evil and enforce justice. (We learn from here that) as long as a nation maintains ideals of justice, there is still hope to reform them. However much they may stray from the ideals they espouse, there is still hope that they might eventually return to those ideals. Therefore, there was no need to destroy the people of Givah. They suffered grievous losses in battle, and were thus duly punished, but they were not entirely destroyed as was Sodom.
“We can thus understand why Rashi says that the very appointment of righteous judges is merit enough for the Bnei Yisrael to live and take possession of the land. Our righteous judges exemplify the ideals of justice for which we strive. As long as they lead our people, their merit serves to protect us, since they will guide us back to the straight path, even if we happen to stray.
“The same principle applies to each individual in his private life. His conscience is his judge. Even when he falls prey to temptation and sins in what he knows to be forbidden, if he still has good ideals his conscience will berate him and he will eventually return in teshuva.
“In contrast, the truly wicked person develops a warped ideology to justify his sins. There is no hope for him to return, as long as he is led by the crooked judge of warped conscience. The Mesilas Yesharim therefore warns us, in his opening words, that our foremost obligation is to clarify what is our purpose in the world: The foundation of piety and the root of perfect service is to clarify and recognize what is one’s obligation in the world, as to what ends he must focus his aspirations in all his toils every day of his life.
“When a person recognizes the correct ideals toward which he must strive, then even if he veers from those ideals, he will eventually return” (Rav Asher Weiss on the Parashah, p.273-275).
As we approach the beginning of the New Year, and we engage in the introspection of Elul and teshuva, we must remember the lesson of the appointment of judges. While we strive to always perfect our deeds, sometimes, despite perhaps our best efforts, we will fall short. When we do err and sin, we must be sure that we appointed for ourselves righteous judges who will chastise us and return us to the correct path. If we have done so, there is hope for our improvement, for our rectification, for our change.
The Chafetz Chaim zt’l said, “The fact that a human being is unable to become perfect does not mean that he can therefore neglect his duty to be good (The Chafetz Chaim, by R’ M.M. Yoshor, p.79).”
Rav Soloveitchik comments, “צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה – Righteousness, Righteousness shall you pursue, so that you may live. The Ramban interprets this phrase as follows: if you judge yourself, you shall live, and if not, He will judge you against your will. We are required to ‘judge ourselves,’ i.e.: engage in introspection. Each of us must split himself into two personae, into judge as well as defendant. As stated, שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ – we must set up judges at each of our ‘gates,’ closing of all escape routes, all spurious rationales which stop us from genuine introspection. This parsha is generally the first one read in the month of Elul. Before the yomim noraim (Days of Awe), one must approach himself as an objective observer and provide an honest self-assessment” (Chumash Masores HaRav, Devarim, p.142).
Let us be sure that we have set up proverbial judges and courts for ourselves, so that, if (and when) chalilah, we do err and fall, we will have the ability to judge ourselves, note our sins, learn from the past, and rise once again.
בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,