Parashas Shoftim – Guard Your Senses
This week's sedra is Parashas Shoftim which contains many commandments, both new and re-spoken by Moshe concerning the establishment of a just society in Eretz Yisrael. The sedra also contains a variety of laws pertaining to the protection of the Torah from encroachment by those who might try and weaken its authority, for example a rebellious elder or a haughty king. Sforno explains that majority of the commandments found in parashas Shoftim are actually directed towards the leaders of the nation themselves because their conduct has such a powerful influence on the rest of the people, for hopefully good, but potentially bad. So what better way to start the sedra than with the commandment to establish a just judicial system with the Torah stating that... “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates” [16:18]. Rashi informs us that we also learn out from this opening possuk that the Torah is commanding us to set up courts of law in every city of Eretz Yisrael with the intention for cases to be judged locally and therefore speedily. One of the biggest problems that is apparent in the contemporary world in fighting crime and running cities efficiently is that there exists a tremendous back-log of cases. In Halacha the trial would take at maximum two days, with a verdict reached within this short time period. The judges were of course both tzaddikim and experts in halacha and they would hear the case, discuss it and then come up with a verdict... no pushing off the date, no appeals etc. According to Rabbi Kaplan this system was very successful at installing a sufficient level of fear amongst the nation whereby they would not commit crime due to the efficiency of the judicial system. This is of course completely different to what we see today with criminals and repeat offenders using some of the sluggish or even corrupt systems present world-wide to their advantage in order to try and cheat society. So what the Torah is ultimately telling us, is to appoint in every city these judges and officers in order to avoid a back-log of legal cases in which a city or society cannot function properly.

So a natural question to ask is... if the Torah is simply trying to teach us the law to appoint these judges and officers in every city then why does it use the specific language of 'בכל-שעריך'/in all your gates, why say the word gates instead of the word cities? The mefarshim bring down a variety of reasons for the specification of the word 'gates' in the possuk... to begin with the most obvious of these; the Beis Din used to be located at the gate of the city with the obvious benefit of instilling a sense of fear and warning to people both living in and visitors entering the city in which they would immediately see and realise that there is a strict Judicial system in place... in other words a clear message of, do not misbehave! There is also a deep Kabbalistic idea hidden within this possuk however in which we are told to appoint Judges and officers in all our gates. To introduce this idea a little first... there is a halacha that Jews are not permitted to shave with an open blade on their faces, the reason for this is that the Pagans and other idolatrous sects used to cut five points along their faces as a form of worshipping idols. In order to completely distance ourselves from this despicable activity we therefore do not pass an open razor blade across our faces as we are also unsure as to what exact five points of the face these were. It is taught that the reason this form of idolatry was undertaken was that the five mutilated points of the face were likened to the five sensors of pleasure present within a human, them being; seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. By causing pain with these five senses in mind, the idea was to try and lessen ones sensory pleasures or to do away with them completely in order to serve the idol better. Fragments of this concept are still found within some modern religions such as Catholicism and Christianity whereby Nun's and Priest's quite unsuccessfully try and refrain from sexual relationships, deeming them as evil, and in more extreme cases they have been known to cause physical pain such as whipping to themselves. Just to note that this is one of a vast range of similarities found between Pagan practices and those of Christianity and Catholicism... but that is beyond the scope of this discussion. Getting back to the point then... Judaism is not about preventing ourselves from deriving pleasure from the five senses gifted to us by Hashem... but we must learn to direct this pleasure in a healthy and holy way. The key word is therefore 'control', by which we can use these senses but in a manner fitting to servants of Hashem. Rav Chaim Vital teaches that the five sense are the gates to our heart and we are meant to use them in order to enjoy life... but what the Torah is telling us here is to “appoint שפטים/judges and שטרים/officers in all our gates”. That is to say, whenever we are going to derive pleasure and access a gate we must first use a judge, or in this case, our judgement in order to decide whether the action is right or wrong, (for example judging whether or not a piece of food is Kosher and should therefore be eaten or not) and then once we have used correct judgement we must of course have an officer there in order to enforce the decision (for example if it is non-Kosher we must have the strength not to eat it). By telling us to appoint these two important roles at “your gates” [16:18] (which is interestingly written in the singular which also supports this more personal message), Hashem is teaching us a significant lesson in how to use our five senses in a halachically acceptable way. Another final related idea is that the Torah is trying to tell us that at each of our personal gates we should create elements of protection. Every opening and organ in our body is a place where the yatsa horra can invade and it is up to us to put up barriers over our ears so that we do not hear evil speech, over our eyes so that we do not see inappropriate images, and over all other areas which can corrupt and distort our service of Hashem.

Immediately following the opening possukim regarding the establishment of Judges is what seems to be a very misplaced commandment that... “You shall not plant for yourselves an idolatrous tree... near the altar of Hashem” [16:21]. According to the Ramban, it was the custom of idolaters to landscape their temples with beautiful 'sacred' trees (called ashairos) at the entrance of their temples in order to attract worshippers. What we see written here is a specific prohibition not to plant trees near our Temple Mount. So as discussed above, the Torah usually prohibits any activity which imitates in anyway the actions of idol worshippers, with the aim for Hashem to distance us completely from idol worshipping in all forms. The Gemara is Sanhedrin [7b] questions the juxtaposition of these two topics found in these opening possukim of Parashas Shoftim; the appointment of fair judges with what is found here, the prohibition of planting a tree near the Temple Mount. So what is the connection between these two? What has planting trees got to do with appointing judges? According to the answer given in the Gemara in Sanhedrin, it teaches us that one who appoints an unqualified judge is considered as having planted an ashaira on the Temple Mount. So how is this so? When one congers up an image of an idol the natural tendency is to picture Buddah, the Chirstian cross or other funky idols because these are distinct figures of idolatrous worship. When it comes to a tree, however, there is no visible difference between a tree being used for idol worship and just a normal tree. This correlation also exists with the appointment of judges; at face value the difference between a proper judge and one which is corrupt or unqualified is not visible. We therefore learn from this juxtaposition of verses that the severity of appointing someone who is unsuitable to judge is so high that it is related to what disgusts Hashem most, Avodah Zarah... idol worshipping. We therefore learn that we are equally responsible as the appointers of these judges as the judges themselves and this mutual responsibility is seen in the world today with populations having to take blame for their appointments of power as much as the government or diplomats themselves, for example, our friends in Gaza who appointed Hamas or previously the Germans who voted in the Nazis. Another similarity I heard was that just as a tree branches out and grows, so too idol worshipping always breeds into various forms of immorality which can also branch out and negatively influence others. This is also evident amongst a bad judge, whose poor judgement has the potential to breed a society of criminals or one whereby the innocent are convicted of crimes they did not commit. We therefore must learn to judge all decisions at both personal and national level with very careful consideration.

Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom and successful Elul full of hardcore shteiging!!

Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshivah, Jerusalem)

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