SERMON FOR PARASHAT SHOFTIM 5776
OFFICERS AND JUDGES
As we approach the High Holy Days, it is our responsibility to engage in teshuva, repentance- to redirect our thoughts and our actions and consider how we are going to make this new year different from those that have passed.
And, it is our responsibility as rabbis to try to find ways to shed light on the issue of teshuva, to find new texts or ideas which can provide new perspectives on the process of repentance.
Today, I want to share with you a beautiful commentary on the first verse in Parashat Shoftim. Then, I want to provide a twist on this commentary which I hope will provide an interesting thought relating to teshuva.
Our Torah portion begins with the words: Shoftim V’Shotrim teetayn licha bichal shiarecha asher ado—nai elohecha notayn licha.
Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD gives you.
Clearly, this is a vital and foundational commandment for a community. The obligation to build a community based on justice, with appropriate safeguards is one of the requirements for the sacred community envisioned in the Torah. But there is more of interest in this verse.
The Torah is clearly talking about 2 different types of positions when it identifies shoftim and shotrim. Shoftim are judges but what are Shotrim? I have read many commentaries with many different ideas but for this morning, I am going to approach this from a bit of an anachronistic perspective and base my definition of shotrim, on the contemporary Hebrew word with the same root; mishtara, meaning “police”. “
Shotrim is to be understood as those who protect the community and Shoftim are those that decide what is just and what is unjust.
Now let’s look at the second part of the verse because it is somewhat odd: “at the gates that God will give you”. While I understand the implication: that God will give the people the land in which the gates will appear, it is a difficult phrase and begs for an interpretation. How does God give us gates?
A commentary cited in the 17th century commentary called Shnei Luchot Habrit by Rabbi Issac Horowitz provides an answer.
The commentary begins by quoting the early mystical Jewish work, Sefer Yetzirah, which teaches that there are 7 gates to the soul: the two ears, the two eyes, the two nostrils and the mouth.
Whatever the original meaning of this text, the commentary goes on to say that these shearim, these gates, take the external impressions of the world and bring them in to our lives. Thus, says this commentary, we must place shoftim v’shotrim before each of the gates that God has given us, that God has created for us. It explains that it is our obligation to protect ourselves from that which comes in to our gates; namely, that we should allow no negative impressions to come in through these gates, that the ears would not hear bad words, the eyes not see evil and so on.
I love the idea behind that commentary. It gives a beautiful meaning to the phrase: “the gates that God has given you” and reminds us to be steadfast against being influenced by evil of all kind.
But, I have to add a bit of a twist to the commentary. The lesson that is taught: that we should protect negatives from coming into our gates is really only about shotrim, those who protect rather than shoftim, those who judge. When he says no negative impressions come in, he is talking about our being shotrim, guarding the gates.
However, the truth is that we can not completely control what comes in through our gates. Over the year to come, just like in past years, no matter how we may try to avoid them, we will hear negative things, we will see inappropriate actions. We will experience all of these.
That is why we must focus also on being shoftim, on being judges. While we can’t completely control that which comes in, we can judge what is worthy of us.
So, let us look at the first verse of the Torah portion and consider the following. God has given us gates, gates which can be open to let in that which we must hear, the cries and needs of others, the words of wisdom shared by honored teachers, the inspiration we receive from those around us.
In truth, we need to be shotrim, we need to guard ourselves from hearing and seeing things which are not worthy of God’s image within us. We need to put ourselves in situations in which we can be more sure that we are hearing and experiencing positive, constructive words and actions.
But, let’s not fool ourselves. We live in a real world and we can not isolate ourselves from all of the negatives in the world. That is why that we need also to be shoftim, to judge that which has come into our gates and make sure to distinguish between that which is positive and that which is destructive.
May we find ways to surround ourselves with goodness this year knowing we won’t entirely accomplish that. So, when negative realities get by our shotrim, may we always be ready to judge what will lead our lives and our world to a better place.