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Parashat Shoftim 5777 — 08/26/2017

Parashat Shoftim 5777 — 08/26/2017

Devarim 16:18-21:9

          …for the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and make righteous words crooked. (16:19)

          Once he has accepted a bribe from him, it is impossible that the judge should not tilt his heart towards [the briber] (Rashi ad loc)

          …so that you will live and take possession of the Land that Hashem, your Gd, gives you. (16:20)

          Appointing decent judges is worthy to keep Israel alive and to settle them on their Land.  (Rashi ad loc)

Our parashah is filled with exhortations to judges to avoid bribery and all sorts of corruption, and it is therefore generally an appropriate time to lament the sorry state of politics that we see around us.  However, we can also see that the problems plaguing us today are actually nothing new – if the Torah legislates that judges should not take bribes, it is obvious that judges have been taking bribes for thousands of years.  If the Torah tells us that society cannot function with a dishonest judiciary, then there must have been contemporary examples, and in fact we find such examples in both Jewish and non-Jewish history, right up to the present time.

This year, however, I shall spare you my ranting.  I would rather consider why it is that the quality of judges and of justice is so very important.  On the surface there are the obvious points.  We all have an innate sense of fairness, and, unless we become numbed to it, we react strongly against those who treat others unfairly, or use their power to oppress others.  We react even more strongly when that oppression is cloaked in a patina of legality.  Furthermore, a society depends on group cohesion.  This is nowhere more true than in the military.  Group cohesion requires buy-in by the great majority of the society to the basic values and principles of the society (e.g. “upward mobility” in the US – the idea that anyone can achieve the “American dream”).  If the judiciary (and other branches of government) is corrupt, favoring some at the expense of others, such buy-in gets harder and harder to obtain.  Eventually, no matter how strong the army is, or the secret police, eventually the society rots from within.  Think slavery in ancient Rome or Egypt.  Think crushing student loans in the US.

This is the surface level.  On a deeper level, corrupt judges pervert the truth, thus damaging all levels of creation.  In fact, the verses right after the verses quoted above deal with the prohibition of idolatry.  Idolatry, which denies the Unity of Gd, is the grossest form of falsehood.  The juxtaposition of the verses indicates a commonality between perverting justice and denying truth.  This is further borne out by a verse later in our parashah (19:17) where the litigants in a court case are described as standing “before Hashem.”  Justice is, ultimately, Gd’s to carry out.  The judges are nothing more than Gd’s instruments for this purpose.  Therefore, if the judges act corruptly, they profane Gd’s name.

Truth is that which doesn’t change.  This can be seen in the actual written Hebrew language.  The Hebrew word for truth is emet – which is written with aleph – mem – tav.  Each of these three letters has a wide, firm base:  aleph stands on two feet; mem has a flat base and tav again stands on two feet.  By contrast, the word for falsehood, sheker, is spelled shinkufreish, all of which stand on one point – in other words, the letters are all unstable.

Our Sages tell us that “the seal of the Holy One is Truth.”  Gd is unchanging and eternal; therefore the Truth of Gd is absolute.  The truth of anything in the manifest creation is necessarily contingent.  If I say that my computer exists, that statement is true at the moment, but it wasn’t true 20 years ago before the computer was manufactured, and it probably won’t be true 20 years hence, when Windows XP will be incompatible with just about everything.  The truth of the existence of my computer is contingent, because all existence other than Gd’s is contingent.  Our Sages describe this contingency in the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 8:5), where Gd is listening to a debate as to whether human beings should be created or not.  Truth said, ‘Let him not be created, because he is compounded of falsehood;’… What did the Holy One do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground.”  I think that this “casting of truth to the ground” can be read as follows: Absolute Truth is only to be found in Heaven.  But for Absolute Truth to be realized in material creation, it has to be “cast to the ground” – that is, made contingent.

The Absolute, in order to create, has to, as it were, retreat from its perfection in order to manifest finite things (in Kabbalistic terminology this is called tzimtzum, “contraction”).  Nevertheless, the same qualities that exist in their fullness in the Absolute still must exist when the Absolute manifests itself.  The ocean is completely water – when it rises in waves, the waves are just as wet as the ocean.  Thus Truth must still be true, even on earth.  It is the function of the judges to make sure that this is the case.  Perhaps that is why we learn that the judge who judges justly becomes a partner of Gd’s in creation.

So far we have been dealing with judges.  There is a further level of consideration that is relevant to every individual.  We are all enjoined to establish judges and officers in our gates.  What do we mean by “gates”?  On the individual level the “gates” are those structures that let influences pass into or out of our individual selves, namely our organs of perception and our organs of action.  What does it mean to station judges at these gates?  Simply, we must be careful only to take in influences that support our growth and our health, and we must be careful only to send out influences that support the growth and health of everything in the environment.  This of course can be quite a challenge.  We are not in control of everything in the environment, and it is very hard to filter out all negative influences.  Similarly, if our nervous system is stressed and inflexible, we tend to react to stimuli in an instinctive manner, rather than responding to them in a reasoned manner.  The challenge is to align our “judges” with the Judge of all the world, Who only does justly.  On Yom Kippur we get the formula – t’shuvah, tefillah, tzedakah / “repentance/return to Gd,” prayer and charity draw us close to Gd – indeed make us more Gdly.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parashat Shoftim

“Shoftim” means “judges” and this parshah speaks about judges, kings and prophets, people who might serve as intermediaries between us and Gd.

Do we need intermediaries? Can we not know Gd directly?

This parshah says we do need them but fortunately the Haftarah says, “No.”

In this parshah, Moses tells us that in Horeb, Mt Sinai, our ancestors heard Gd’s voice and bid Moses to go on the mountain and speak with Gd, lest they die. Gd tells Moses they have said well. And Moses tells the people gathered together years later of judges, kings and prophets who will be appointed and will arise: so intermediaries were still needed.

But  in the Haftarah, Isaiah 52: 6-10 Gd says we will know Him: no intermediary is necessary.

6 Therefore, My people shall know My name; therefore, on that day, for I am He Who speaks, here I am.”

ולָכֵ֛ן יֵדַ֥ע עַמִּ֖י שְׁמִ֑י לָכֵן֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא כִּֽי־אֲנִי־ה֥וּא הַֽמְדַבֵּ֖ר הִנֵּֽנִי:
7 How beautiful are the feet of the herald on the mountains, announcing peace, heralding good tidings, announcing salvation, saying to Zion, “Your God has manifested His kingdom.”

זמַה־נָּאו֨וּ עַל־הֶֽהָרִ֜ים רַגְלֵ֣י מְבַשֵּׂ֗ר מַשְׁמִ֧יעַ שָׁל֛וֹם מְבַשֵּׂ֥ר ט֖וֹב מַשְׁמִ֣יעַ יְשׁוּעָ֑ה אֹמֵ֥ר לְצִיּ֖וֹן מָלַ֥ךְ אֱלֹהָֽיִךְ:
8 The voice of your watchmen- they raised a voice, together they shall sing, for eye to eye they shall see when the Lord returns to Zion.

חק֥וֹל צֹפַ֛יִךְ נָ֥שְׂאוּ ק֖וֹל יַחְדָּ֣ו יְרַנֵּ֑נוּ כִּ֣י עַ֚יִן בְּעַ֙יִן֙ יִרְא֔וּ בְּשׁ֥וּב יְהֹוָ֖ה צִיּֽוֹן:
9 Burst out in song, sing together, O ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has consoled his people; He has redeemed Jerusalem.

טפִּצְח֚וּ רַנְּנוּ֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו חָרְב֖וֹת יְרֽוּשָׁלִָ֑ם כִּֽי־נִחַ֚ם יְהֹוָה֙ עַמּ֔וֹ גָּאַ֖ל יְרֽוּשָׁלִָֽם:
10 The Lord has revealed His holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

יחָשַׂ֚ף יְהֹוָה֙ אֶת־זְר֣וֹעַ קָדְשׁ֔וֹ לְעֵינֵ֖י כָּל־הַגּוֹיִ֑ם וְרָאוּ֙ כָּל־אַפְסֵי־אָ֔רֶץ אֵ֖ת יְשׁוּעַ֥ת אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ:
Joy is rising in our world, though the headlines don’t seem to show it. Though at Horeb and later our ancestors were not pure enough to be open to Gd in Wholeness, soon our world will be pure enough, open enough to Gd, so that the fear of Gd’s voice which existed at Hebron will no longer rise. Isaiah’s words will be alive in our actions and in our Experience of Gd. We will know Gd and experience life as Life in Teshuvah, the return to Oneness, the fulfillment of our religion and the fulfillment of our lives.

How Lovely!

Baruch HaShem