May 22, 2019

Torah Portion Shoftim

Reflections on the Weekly Torah Portion – Shoftim

Judges and Officers
Dear Rabbi Mordecai Finley,

I can remember one of the first spiritual psychological Chasidic texts that I studied, a text that opened the gates to a lifetime of study. One of my teachers introduced me to the great Chasidic compilation “Sefat Emet” (roughly, “The Language of Truth.”) As anyone who has studied more than fives minutes knows, the author was Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905 – he died young, 57 years old) from the little town of Ger, 40 miles outside of Warsaw. The “Gerer Rebbe's” talks over 35 years were collected and published after his death.

At my teacher's recommendation, I bought a set of the books. They were printed in “Rashi script” (a misnomer), a somewhat difficult typeface to read if one is only used to regular Hebrew print. The sermons are dense; they are actually notes, sometimes disjointed, brief thoughts that the reader has to flesh out. He mixes Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Zohar and other texts in a complex tapestry as he weaves his message. I spent lots of hours trying to unravel the language of the language of truth.

One of his talks on this week's Torah portion was a breakthrough for me. Our Torah portion, Shoftim (Judges) begins with these words:  “You shall place judges and officers (shoftim v-shotrim) at all of your gates.” The gate in ancient Israelite society was probably the location of a plaza, where, among other things, legal cases were adjudicated. The biblical law commands the establishment of a police force and a judiciary in every city.

What does “Sefat Emet” do with this phrase? Remember, the Chasidic path to Torah, following the lead of the Talmud and Midrash, holds that the biblical text is multivalent. The text is stable, but the meaning is not.

A “gate” (sha'ar' in Hebrew) is read to mean a place where our inner life meets the outer world:  our eyes, ears and mouths. We can shut them, we can open them. The world comes in mostly through the gates of the eyes and ears, and our world comes out mostly through the gate of the mouth.

“Fascinating concept,” I remember thinking. I thought about sayings such as “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” which I always interpreted as a person who did not want to admit to the evil in the world.

The text goes on.  The phrase “judges and officers” refers to how we govern those gates. “Judges” refers to our 'adjudicating' what should go in and out. 'Officers' refers to the will to enforce those values – the power to actually monitor and regulate.

I thought about gossip, and the almost irresistible urge to listen to it. I have taught often that we should limit gossip to our already identified few “gossip partners” – people with whom you can vent, who won't go running around repeating everything you say, and who can help you work something through. I learned that when a person who is not one of your gossip partners starts to spread the bad news about somebody, you have to ask questions:  'How do you know?' And 'why are you telling me this?' and say, 'Please know that I will now have to go to this person and verify.'

The “judge” inside has to adjudicate whether this is gossip or a person sharing with you crucial information. The “officer” then has to act on that judgment. I recall people saying to me, after they had heard a load of gossip from someone, that they were “just listening.” I reminded them that “just listening” if often interpreted by the gossiper as acquiescence. The judge knows when it is gossip and the officer does something about it.

I thought of our Yom Kippur confessional, where we confess the sin of “wanton looks”, and I expanded that: rolling eyes, expressions of contempt. Facial and body language are also gates.

What we see and what we hear are not neutral categories. Our hearing and seeing can be filled with biases, prejudices, assumptions, foregone conclusions. It takes real effort to put a 'judge on our gates' – and not let our “city” (our inner lives) be ruled by the “mob” (the ego self, under stress).

We need to morally judge ourselves, and place officers – the will – to enforce our good moral judgment.

I recall contemplating the teaching I read (I have shared only a brief part of it), and thinking what a psychological astute man he was. I imagined his congregation in a small town outside of Warsaw, being exposed to this rather sophisticated piece of what I call spiritual formation and moral psychology. I thought of my soul encountering his soul.

I recall being thankful that my Hebrew skills, and my command of the range of Jewish texts that he cited, made it possible for me to study him; thankful for my teachers and the institutions that gave me that knowledge. I was thankful that I had learned to read Rashi script. Thankful that my teacher had recommended him to me. And of course, thankful most of all to this fine mind and spirit who had become my teacher.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mordecai Finley