“You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment.” (Devorim 16:18)
The beauty of our Torah lies in its ability to convey profound, life-enhancing messages in a nuanced and gentle manner. Moshe instructs us to set up judicial systems in each of our communities. The judges must be just, pious and upright and dedicate themselves to upholding the rule of law. They may not give preferential treatment to one litigant over the other and their conduct both in and out of the court must be beyond reproach. They must overcome their fear of the powerful and not instinctively side with the poor. Their ultimate allegiance is to God, the Torah and the creation and preservation of a just society. The great Chassidic master, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) sees an additional, spiritual and interpersonal message in this verse. During this month of Elul, we prepare for the upcoming Days of Judgement, Yimei HaDin. We ask God for mercy and compassion. We ask our Father to look at us through the Divine lens of rachamim (compassion) and not through the prism of din (justice). How do we “convince” God to make this shift? After all, if we have done something wrong, if we committed a relationship trespass against God, what right do we have to ask for the mercy? If we committed the “crime” are we not deserving of the punishment?
The Rebbe explains that our actions in this world impact and inform the way God acts towards us (the Baal Shem Tov explains that God is like our shadow (Hashem Tzilcha –Psalms 121:5); meaning just as my shadow mimics my every move, so too God’s reaction towards me is a reflection of my actions towards others). Thus, if we want Divine compassion and mercy we must extend those very traits and behaviors towards others. If we want God to give us the benefit of the doubt, we must extend that same courtesy to others. If we want God to bestow blessing upon us, we must go out of our way to bestow upon others. If we want God to help us in difficult times, we must be ready to roll up our sleeves and help another in their time of need.
This is the meaning of the above mentioned verse. “Shoftim V’Shotrim Titen Lecha B’chol She’arecha, (you shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in your cities).” We each have the ability to influence Divine judgment through the judgements we make within our own city, within our own world. “V’shaftu Es Ha’am Mishpat Tzedek (you shall judge the people righteously).” If we judge the other with compassion, if we judge the other with mercy, if we give the other the benefit of the doubt, we will bring down Divine compassion from above.
It is during this sacred month that we must prepare ourselves to give an accounting of the past year and to ask for another year in which we can accomplish and be productive. We all need a bit of Divine compassion, rachamim, to help us through this process. We learn from this opening verse that the best way to convince God to take care of us is to take care of one another. If we shower compassion, mercy and love upon one another, if we are a bit less critical of one another, we will be privileged to receive a generous dose of rachamim from our Father above.
Let us learn this lesson, let us live this lesson and in its merit may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Moshe Rabbeinu spends his final days reviewing and reinforcing the ideas and perspectives necessary to allow the nation of Israel to become a successful, powerful and strong people. He reminds them to avoid the temptations of idolatry and immorality and to remain true to the tenets of our Torah and relationship with God. Moshe also dispensed a healthy dose of chizuk (positive reinforcement).
“For you are a holy people to the Lord, your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a treasured people for Him, out of all the nations that are upon the earth.” (Devorim 14:2)
God loves us. Not only when we behave or follow His dictates, He loves us all the time. Moshe tells us that failure is inevitable, but he also reminds us that God’s love and commitment to us is constant. God does punish and there are repercussions for our negative or sinful behaviors, but the Divine love is always present (even if at times it cannot be felt). It is this message which gives us the strength to rebuild in the aftermath of communal and national failure. God forgives, and God loves. Why? Because we are the chosen treasure of our Father Above.
Rashi (Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105) advances a simple yet profound insight:
For you are a holy people: Your holiness stems from your forefathers, and, moreover, “the Lord has chosen you.” – [Sifrei]
Moshe is not simply telling us we are holy, he is explaining that our holiness is innate. Our personal holiness doesn’t only stem from what we do or the choices we make, it is the result of who we are. We are the children of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Yaakov, Rachel and Leah. We are the descendants of Moshe Rabbeinu and Dovid HaMelech. Holiness is contained in our very life-blood and embedded in our DNA. Moshe Rabbeinu was teaching us that no matter how profoundly we fail or how far we fall, we are still holy. No matter how many times we sin or how many bad choices we make, we are still holy. But how can this be? Haven’t we divested ourselves of our personal holiness? “For you are a holy people, your holiness stems from your forefathers.” There is earned, personal holiness and conferred, national holiness. Earned holiness is the result of our good deeds and positive accomplishments. It is attained through positive actions, but it can be lost through negative or sinful behavior. Conferred holiness is the result of who we are as the Jewish Nation. We are part of a people that is endowed with an irrevocable holiness. Conferred holiness cannot be lost or even compromised. No matter what we do, no matter how badly we mess up, we are still holy. This was the ultimate chizuk and message of hope Moshe was giving to his beloved flock. My dear children, you are holy and will always be holy. Even when you fail, you are holy. Even when you fall, you are holy. It is this holiness that God sees in you and it is this holiness with which create the unbreakable bond of love between your Creator and you.”
This Shabbos marks the beginning of the month of Elul. This last month of the year provides us the opportunity for reflection and introspection. It is during these upcoming days that we ponder our accomplishments and failures of the past year and think about what we want to accomplish and who we want to be in the year to come. All too often we feel overwhelmingly saddened by our failures and shortcomings. At times we feel frustrated as the things we resolved to fix this past year are still in a state of disrepair. It is during this sacred, last month of the year that we must remember we are holy. No matter how many failures we encounter or how far we may have fallen, we are still holy. We can squander our personal holiness but are always blanketed by our conferred national holiness. Where there is holiness, there is hope and where there is hope, there are untold possibilities.
A new series on Parsha, Rabbi Silber shares some of the basic highlights from the weekly torah portion.
A new series on Parsha, Rabbi Silber shares some of the basic highlights from the weekly torah portion.
“And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep and perform them, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.” (Devorim 7:12)
At first glance, it represents a simple, straightforward theme; if we follow the word of God, He will take care of us. The Torah is replete with verses emphasizing the reciprocal nature of our relationship with God. If we are willing to commit our allegiance to the Torah and Mitzvos, God will see that our needs are met. This idea is at the core of our relationship contract with God: you will get out what you are willing to put in. Yet, the famed commentator, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105) highlights an additional dimension of meaning:
“And it will be, because you will heed: Heb. עֵקֶב, lit. heel. If you will heed the minor commandments which one [usually] tramples with his heels [i.e., which a person treats as being of minor importance].”
The Torah uses the word eikev which contextually means “if” but can also mean “heel.” As such Rashi understands an additional nuanced message, “If we are vigilant with the details which people normally trample upon, there will be abundant Divine blessing.” Rashi is teaching us two profound lessons.
Lesson #1: We all trample on something. In our spiritual lives we consciously or subconsciously create a religious hierarchy. There are some obligations which we feel are important and other obligations which are not. There are details which apply to each individual and details which do not. There are mitzvos we each can relate to and others which seem anachronistic, or at odds with our personal life outlook or philosophy. And so, we trample. We adhere, obey and admire the aspects with which we agree and intentionally or unintentionally set aside the aspects with which we don’t. Here is the beautiful reality: God doesn’t ask us to be perfect. He doesn’t expect us to perform all of His commandments and He doesn’t expect proficiency in every area of Judaic practice. All God desires is effort. We create these “mitzvah rankings” as a way of justifying non-performance. But we don’t have to do that. We don’t perform all the mitzvos because we are limited human beings who try hard but can’t always get it right. We recognize that every law and detail in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) is binding and obligatory but are not always able to live up to this standard. The good news is, it’s ok. God understands. Just don’t trample and make things unimportant to justify our human finitude. In fact, if you look at the wording of the verse it says, “And it will be if you listen (tishmaun) …”, just listen! Yes, the ultimate goal we aspire to is performance (va’asisem) but start just by listening, acknowledging that these are the expectations.
Lesson #2: Spiritual success doesn’t require spiritual heroism. Little things make all the difference. This is true in many life relationships. In marriage, it is not the birthday or anniversary gifts which shape the fabric of the relationship, it is the phone calls during the day to say, “I love you,” or the small acts of consideration, companionship and love (though the presents certainly help). When our children bring home a project for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day our hearts are filled with joy, even though these creations are objectively junk (please don’t share with my children). Why? Because it is a genuine expression of love. The same is true in our relationship with God. The little things make all the difference. The way we talk to others, the manner in which we conduct our business dealings, our concentration during prayer, our commitment to daily Torah learning, our willingness to give charity, these are the little things which have such a dramatic impact. The Torah and our history are filled with stories of great people making enormous sacrifices for God. But day to day life is filled with the opportunities to do small things for God. These are the “eikev” moments. The little things that at first glance seem so insignificant that you can just step on them with your heel, yet, these are the very things which determine our spiritual identity and relationship with God. If you are grumpy in the morning and push yourself to greet people with a smile, the sea will not split before you, but you have done something amazing. If you see someone in need and manage to step out of yourself and help them, God will not call out your name from the heavens, but you have furthered your relationship with Him. If you are exhausted after a long day of work but manage to carve out some time to learn Torah, you won’t see the lightning and hear the thunder of Sinaitic revelation, but you have shown your Father how truly committed you are.
We must find the strength to stop trampling and start building with the small bricks of “eikev” accomplishment. God promises that He is waiting for us and ready to reciprocate our efforts. May we find the courage the first small step and feel the blessing of His love in the journey ahead.