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3 Commands We Can Fulfill Today - The Weekly Shiur – Shoftim 5779

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Welcome to our new weekly shiur that moved from Jerusalem to New York.  This week's parasha is Shoftim (Judges). We are already in the month of Elul, and everything said today will connect to the month of Elul, to our desire to improve and refine ourselves and to begin anew. In this parasha, there are 41 mitzvot, and we will focus on three of them. Technically, these mitzvot cannot be observed today. It is not possible to actually practice them. However, we can still appreciate their relevance and their practical application to our lives in the everyday here and now.

1. City of Refuge

The Torah commands us to build cities of refuge: (Deut. 19:2,4)

שָׁלוֹשׁ עָרִים תַּבְדִּיל לָךְ בְּתוֹךְ אַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.

וְזֶה דְּבַר הָרֹצֵחַ אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה וָחָי אֲשֶׁר יַכֶּה אֶת רֵעֵהוּ בִּבְלִי דַעַת וְהוּא לֹא שֹׂנֵא לוֹ מִתְּמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם.

You shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the Lord, your G-d, is giving you to possess.

And this is the case of the killer who will flee there, so that he may live: Whoever strikes his fellow [to death] unintentionally, whom he did not hate in times past. 

A city of refuge is the place where someone who commits a capital crime can escape and change his ways. Again, although there are no cities of refuge today, the commentators call upon us to build our own, private city of refuge inside ourselves. One month a year, we can escape in order to change, to improve, to resolve to begin anew. And I want to thank all of you for the start of Elul this year, for our recent days in America, for the fresh start I have experienced with you.

It seems to me that, beyond being in a foreign land, where the culture and society are different from at home, there is a lesson to be learned about humility.  It’s a severe blow to your ego to go to a new place. Only a few days ago, Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern, among the heads of Yeshiva University, accompanied me to the nearest train station in order to explain to me how to get home. What a confusion... I was unable to buy a ticket with my Israeli credit card, so we went to pay in person. I gave the cashier a five dollar bill and she said that the ticket was six dollars. I gave her a hundred dollar bill and she said that’s too much. How damaging to your self-confidence and self-image! In Israel, I can buy a train ticket, I can speak with cashiers, I can fill out forms, I can call businesses and pay bills without any problems.  Here, everything makes you feel smaller. You’re not as strong as you thought. So thank you for the life lesson. During those moments waiting for the train, Rabbi Dr. Halpern told me the following story:

Rabbi Norman Lamm, past President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshiva University, would often tell the following story on the importance of humility: On his first day he went to the cafeteria for lunch. He picked his food out and brought his tray to the cashier to pay. The cashier wanted to know what to charge him for his meal, so she asked him if he was faculty - he said no. She asked if he was a student - he said no. If he was a visitor - he said no. So, I guess you’re a nobody, she said.

So, I fell nobody again and again… it's quite a lesson.

Moving to a place where the language is different is also a lesson: We seem to be embarrassed at the lack of proficiency in the language that we speak with each other, whether it’s English or Hebrew, so that we end up not speaking with each other as much as we should. So I am sincerely asking you to correct my mistakes in English. That will make me happy and I will correct your mistakes in Hebrew in return.

May all of us merit to enter a city of refuge and to take advantage of this Elul period. Due to so many technical demands of moving to a new land, I haven't had sufficient time to properly study. Nevertheless, I feel that by means of undertaking technical tasks – I can still learn a lesson of what Elul is all about.

2. You shall appoint judges and police officers for yourself in all your cities.

Let’s start with the level of simple understanding:

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ.

You shall appoint judges and police officers for yourself in all your cities.

The sentence is explained by Rashi as follows:

Judges – magistrates who render legal decisions

Police officers – who compel the people to abide by their instructions.

Here we find a demand for a fair judicial system, to establish a court and law enforcement system upon which we can rely. While in the desert, we already saw a delegation of powers from Moshe Rabeinu on down. And when we enter the Land of Israel, we still need courts and law enforcement.  Our court system is one of the hottest subjects in the current elections in Israel: The declining status of our court system, judicial activism, along with the status of Torah law and halacha. This addresses the above passage on a basic level: a society cannot function without a court system.

However, in daily life, most of us cannot do anything about fixing the court system. But the Torah’s message is eternal, always relevant to us in everyday life, so what does this passage enlighten us to do on an individual level?

To answer this question, please allow me to tell you a personal story:

Every year, I become emotional all over again when reading this parasha. It reminds me of something very special that happened to me many years ago in my early youth. I had just begun to take an interest in Judaism and since I was already appearing on television and, since they wrote in the newspapers that I was on a path of “becoming religious" I was invited to be a judge for a song contest sponsored by “Ezra,” a religious youth movement. The contest took place in Ganei Yehoshua, a large public park Tel Aviv.

Groups of kids appeared on stage and a rabbi arrived to give a blessing. "You shall appoint judges and police officials in all your cities! Place judges and police at all your personal gates, all your facial openings: your two ears, two eyes, your nose and mouth. Pay attention to what you put into them, to what they are exposed, to what you watch, to what you hear. Pay attention to what goes in through your 'hearing' gate - unpleasant speech, curses, inappropriate content - and what goes out from your 'speaking' gate – how you talk and how others hear you. Place judges and police at all your gates!".  He only spoke for two minutes, in Hebrew, but for me it was Chinese.

I remember that I turned to a friend sitting next to me and I told her that I didn’t understand a word. "Why mention ‘judges and police,’ anyway?" I asked, and she answered, "Uh, that’s from a Torah verse." Of course it is.  That I understood. "But why does he mention this particular verse, and how did he come up with this explanation?". And she answered, as if it was the clearest, most logical explanation in the world: "Because this is the weekly Torah portion. Everyone here is familiar with it."  I still had lots of questions.  "But wait a second, how do we know that this verse is telling you to pay attention not to curse? What’s the connection?". The kids continued singing on stage and she continued patiently explaining: "This is a type of commentary called Midrash. The verse literally means that you should put police and judges in cities, to establish a judicial and law enforcement system. This is what the Torah says, but then our sages came along and said by means of a Midrash, an allegorical interpretation, that this is actually an instruction for each individual to put judges and police at his or her personal 'gates'. According to this interpretation, we must pay careful attention to what we allow to come in and go out of our mouths – for example, the food we eat and the words we speak".

It took some time for me to understand what she was saying. I had never encountered such an idea, that we can so easily jump from a literal to a symbolic meaning of a Torah passage. In truth, they were actually reading it in a completely different way. Yet it appeared that for all of those present – except me – this was a fundamental way of thinking. I looked around me. Was this their culture, but not mine? Did the hundreds of kids sitting here know how to crack open these codes? I suddenly experienced a strange sensation of envy which I shared with my friend. "Did everyone here automatically understand this passage in this way?", I asked her. "Yes, all of them," she replied with a smile, "assuming that they were listening.  You know, not everyone is really listening. People sometimes space out during a dvar Torah (a word of Torah)". When she saw my expression, she quickly noticed, once again, my lack of understanding: "So they call this a ‘dvar Torah'?", I said. "Yes, a compact idea like this is called a Dvar Torah".

I don’t remember which song won that contest or which kids returned home victoriously. But those moments I remember until today.  I learned that there is a huge gap between the language spoken by those who have not yet received Torah education and the language spoken by those who have been fortunate enough to receive it.

Those who speak the language of Torah need to make sure that we are understood by those who do not yet speak it.

But from that moment on – when I sat in the park in Tel Aviv – I decided to learn more. And I never could have imagined that one day I would be standing here speaking in front of you about this Torah verse.

And truly, the interpretation of this verse I heard that day in the park well known. I came across it again and again as I researched our sages’ words on this verse. I do not know who was the first, but the earliest commentator I found with this interpretation was "Siftei Cohen", also known as Hashach, Rabbi Shabtai Cohen, author of a famous commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, who lived in the 15th – 16th century. Anyone who is aware of a still earlier interpretation that matches this one should please let me know about it. Let’s take a look at a more modern commentator who quotes this ancient idea:

"And in all your gates – the gates of the body (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands, feet), since by means of them a person connects with the surrounding world – that a person is obligated to appoint a judge and a police officer to monitor everything that enters and exits through these gates, according to the instructions of the Torah." (Lubavitcher Rebbe)

Netivot Shalom draws our attention to the importance of halting our negative desires at the "gates" in quoting from "Yesod Ha’Avoda" the major work, composed in the 19th century, of Harav Avraham Weinberg, the first rebbe from Slonim, as follows:  "A day that a Jew does not do something contrary to his desires – is not considered a day of life".

Netivot Shalom sites examples of positive and negative utilization of our sensory gates: smelling spices Saturday night over Havdalah as the Sabbath departs is a wonderful use of the nose, but to curse is an unauthorized use of the mouth since it was not created for that purpose. Each of our "gates" needs to be used in a measured, calculated, and exacting manner, in the most effective and beneficial way. Each "gate" has a purpose for which it was created, but there is a twisted possible use that destroys its beauty, and we need to utilize all the sensory capacities we were given by Hashem in the appropriate way. To make sure we do this, monitoring of our “"gates" requires judges and police.

We have been given in our generation a special challenge in this area, in an era of new media.

In recent days a fascinating development, inspired by tragedy, took place:  around a week ago, a 17 year old girl named Rina Shnerb was murdered in a terrorist attack in Israel. It was my first Sabbath in America. As you know, when Shabbat ends here, it is already the middle of the night in Israel.  Shabbat ended and I saw an urgent announcement from Rina’s uncle, Eli Weisbart, the brother of Rina’s mother, Shira Shnerb. He requested that I should get back to them as soon as possible and that I should publish a personal message that the family wanted to pass along:

"Lately, our daughter thought all the time about a single subject – the cellular world of smart phones.  She felt that not only are all of us surfing to places we should not go and but that we have lost control of the surfboard.  We do not rule over the smart phone; it rules over us.  She was only 17. But the time wasting of her generation preoccupied and bothered her greatly. Therefore we, the family, thought that whoever wants to do something to elevate (memorialize) her soul can start in this area.  To regularly schedule for himself or herself quality time during which the telephone is put aside and we return to ourselves, to sanity, to balance, to peace of mind.  That everyone should tell himself or even publicize the fact that “I spent an hour without my telephone.”  For example, in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, Moshe Rabeinu places before us a choice: 'See, I put before you today a blessing and a curse'.  It’s in our hands.  We define our status every single moment.  The first suggestion can be to cut ourselves off a little – in order to reconnect".

I published this message and received more than 2,000 emotional responses from men and women, young and old, with different personal resolutions in connection with this message. Here are just a few of them:

  • “We are kids that used to belong to 20 different social media groups. We closed 15 of them and our lives have changed.”
  • “I am the mother of a little baby and I noticed that I do not look into her eyes and do not pay close attention when I feed her. This is not like it was with my previous children. Your message turned me around and it’s already three days since I am much more focused on her.”
  • “We are a group of eighth graders and we are not asking our parents for smart phones. We have decided to stop nagging them about this during the coming school year as a means of elevating Rina’s soul.”

I felt great satisfaction and joy from this wave of reactions which we passed along to the family, who were moved as well. But this was not the end. After several days, a young but wise student from a Jerusalem yeshiva wrote the following:

“Laws and rules regarding cellular devices will not benefit us if we do not have content that is significant and profound within ourselves. This week we mark the passing of HaRav Kook on the 3rd of Elul. I read this week in his book 'Lights of Teshuva' that true teshuva (repentance/return) is based on internal awareness of the individual. When we forget about the essence of the soul, when we occupy ourselves all the time with distractions and not with life itself, when we count 'likes' and think about every situation as a potential photo opportunity – it’s no wonder that we feel messed up and confused. A person needs to feel that what is happening inside and with his soul is the main thing, and not what happens outside. Through his own soul and positive character traits, this individual should see the other person and not judge anyone by means of some external criterion. ‘Teshuva’ according to Rav Kook, comes from the word ‘return’. Every individual needs to return to his or her true self and to find the substance that is there through learning, self-improvement, refinement, and mission fulfillment. Through this process, there will automatically be less time devoted to wandering through an Internet feed, not only because of ‘judges and police officers’ but because of preoccupation with authentic living".

He’s correct. His intention is that of an ancient interpretation of this verse, that is, on an ideal level we don’t live by outside "judges and police officers" but by internal "judges and counselors".

Rashi wrote that the police officers "compel the people".  But after the parasha we also read the haftarah. Here is something we read in the haftarah, from Isaiah 1:26, before Tisaha B’av, after the Shabbat Hazon parasha:

"And I will restore your judges as at first, and your counselors as in the beginning".

And consistent with this passage, one of our prayers during the Amidah reads:

"Restore our judges as at first and our counsellors as in the beginning".

We don’t say “Restore our judges as at first and our police officers as in the beginning” because we aspire to a different world, one without police officers. This is one of the objectives of the geulah (redemption), to repair and refine the world. Think of a world where education does not depend on compelling anyone to do anything but on awakening the desire to act properly and to do the right thing – where we listen to counsellors and do not need police. When we argue with a police officer about a parking ticket, we express our lack of love for the law and show no desire for it, much less attempt to integrate it into our lives. If we take counsel, on the other hand, it means that we want to listen, that we want to find the proper path and walk down it together. In the future, when redemption comes, evil will be eliminated and we will not need police. We will live by the Torah out of our own free will.

Regarding conflicts within the Jewish people today, we might want to offer the following prayer: That persuasion will depend not on a battle or a struggle but on good will. Imagine a situation in which we will not argue.  The entire nation of Israel will desire Shabbat as a shared value.

3. Torah Scroll

Let’s continue and talk about a Jewish king and the commandment that he should write a Torah scroll (Deut. 17:18-20):

וְהָיָה כְשִׁבְתּוֹ עַל כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר מִלִּפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם. וְהָיְתָה עִמּוֹ וְקָרָא בוֹ כָּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו לְמַעַן יִלְמַד לְיִרְאָה אֶת ה' אֱלֹהָיו לִשְׁמֹר אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לַעֲשֹׂתָם. לְבִלְתִּי רוּם לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו וּלְבִלְתִּי סוּר מִן הַמִּצְוָה יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאל לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים עַל מַמְלַכְתּוֹ הוּא וּבָנָיו בְּקֶרֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל.

"And it shall be that when he occupies the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself a duplicate of this Torah in a scroll form (the scroll) before the kohanim – the Levites.  It is to accompany himand he is to read in it all the days of his life, in order that he learn to fear Adonay, his G-d, to guard every word of this Torah and these statutes to fulfill them; That his pride not increase over his brothers and he does not stray from the commandments right or left; so that the days of his reign are lengthy over his kingdom, he and his sons within Israel".

There is a long discussion as to whether there is an initial obligation to appoint a Jewish king or if the obligation is only accepted ex post facto. There is also a discussion as to whether each person today has an obligation to write a Torah scroll or not, but we are not getting into either one of these issues.

The commentators explain that we cannot allow ourselves to be mistaken or confused; the fact that someone becomes king does not make him stronger –more immune to sin –but rather the opposite. He becomes more fragile.  He is likely to become confused from all the honor he receives and swell up with pride. Someone who rises to greatness requires increased watchfulness, increased blessing, and this is true regarding each one of us. An exalted position carries with it added responsibility and you need to pay closer attention to everything.

I think that this mitzvah contains a great truth: we triumph over and outlive all the nations of the world through our words. Neither through pyramids nor through palaces. Words have carried us through thousands of years until our return to the Land of Israel. A Torah scroll is stronger that any weapon, more protective than any border or political regime.

Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, is the richest man in Asia. When he visited Israel he said, in the same vein: “I came to discover your secret and I think I now understand.  For 2,000 years, you were homeless. You could always be exiled, you could always be kicked out, you were always “the wandering Jew.”  And everything was temporary and fragile and transient.  Therefore, you did not invest in physical things, you did not build tangible things, because there was no reason to do so.  This caused you to invest in the most important things – in study, in thought, in development of the mind and the heart.  This is your secret.”

The question is whether or not we remember that this is still our secret today, when we are blessed with relatively comfortable and stable physical circumstances, baruch Hashem.

Let us summarize:

  • may we merit to enter a city of refuge called Elul
  • may we merit to place judges and guards and, perhaps more importantly, judges and counsellors at our gates
  • may we connect ourselves to a Torah scroll and to what it says inside, to texts and holy words that guide us

Thank you very much. We will meet again, b"h, next week.


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