A Taste of Torah – Parshas Shoftim

Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller

The first commandment of this week’s parsha is,  “שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן – לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ – You shall designate for yourself judges and enforcers in all of your communities.” This verse teaches us that we must create a judicial system in every Jewish community. This is the mainstay of a just society and Jews have maintained these courts for millennia. However, there seems to be a superfluous word in this passuk, “לך – for yourself.“ It would seem that the commandment would be understood without this word.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (prominent halachic authority and Rosh Yeshiva 1895-1986) answers that the Torah is teaching us that we need to create an internal system of self-judgment and accountability. Just as we need a communal system of justice to assure civil order and justice for all, we need a system to check our own moral inadequacies. If a person cannot restrain his base desires and cannot identify his weaknesses and personal conflicts, he will fail as a human being and as a member of society. Reb Moshe interprets the next passuk, “Do not give recognition (special consideration) to either party,” which warns the judge against playing favorites in the courtroom, to apply to our internal judgment as well. We are warned not to give our own interest and desires the upper hand when we are making decisions that affect our interactions with others.

The Torah teaches us that we need to regulate our behavior by having an internal system of planning and accountability. This system has to work with the realization that we have an emotional and a pleasure-seeking aspect of our personality that shades our judgment. If we are aware of this and really in touch with ourselves, we can remain objective in our decision making. If we don’t think and reflect or if we’re out of touch with the forces within us, we are liable to do the wrong thing and we can really ruin ourselves.

The mussar masters placed great emphasis on identifying the subconscious biases which affect us  even when we are not aware of them. There is a story told about Reb Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, the “Alter of Novarduk,” who once took a train ride to a distant city and then got on the next train back without doing anything at his destination. When he was questioned about this, he explained that he had considered attending to some business in that place but then he had decided against it. He was concerned that this decision came from a place of laziness not from an objective analysis of the question. To clarify this to himself, he chose to make the trip so that the effort and exertion would not be in the equation!

We are now in the somber month of Elul, the time when we prepare for the Yamim Noraim. This special time is especially opportune for us to self-assess our internal system of judgment and make the necessary adjustments so that we can look toward a truthful and an internally honest life.