Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
e-mail yosilr@widomaker.com

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Parshat Shoftim

This Vortify is in honor of the birth of Sarah Miriam Gellerstein, the new born daughter of Dr. Allan and Jen Gellerstein of Newport News, Virginia. MAZAL TOV !!!

Due to my extensive travelling this week, this Vortify is a reprint of last year's Parshat Shoftim.

This Monday and Tuesday, we celebrated Rosh Chodesh Elul. In preparation for the Yamim Nora'im ( literally, the Days of Awe - the High Holy Days), our tradition has filled this month with all kinds of consciousness raising rituals. Every day we add Psalm 27, a prayer designed to arouse our inner feelings, to the Morning and Evening services. Every morning except Shabbat, we blow the Shofar which is also designed to awaken our inner sensitivities. And just a few weeks from today, we will begin the recitation of S'lichot prayers that are designed to pave the way into our hearts for Teshuvah (repentance) or better yet, a return to Hashem's path of righteousness.

It is no wonder then, that the various Parshiot (the weekly Torah portions) as well as the corresponding Haftorot (a portion of the Prophets that corresponds to the Parsha. Read as a supplement after the Torah reading on Shabbat and holidays) during this time period emphasize similar thoughts of repentance and restraint. Our Parsha, Shoftim, begins with the words:

"Shoftim V'shotrim Titayn L'chah B'chol Sh'eorecha" (You are to appoint judges and enforcers of the law within all your gates, or rather, in all your towns and cities.) (Devarim 16:18)

The Torah then instructs the judges to judge with fairness, not to show favoritism, not to distort the law, and particularly, not to take a bribe (ibid 19).

It is important to note, that the Mitzvah (commandment) of Shoftim (of appointing judges), is a Mitzvah that is incumbent on each and every one of us. It is not designated for a special group, such as Mitzvot that apply only to priests, or Mitzvot that apply only to farmers living within the borders of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). How strange that so technical a Mitzvah as the Law of Judges is the obligation of each and every Jew.

As we all know, each word of the Torah has many interpretations. The great Talmudist and Kabbalist Rabbi Yeshayah Halevi Hurwitz, also known as the Sh'loh Hakodosh (1565 - 1630), interprets the words B'chol She'orecha (in all your gates), "as the portals whereby a person gathers information about the world about him."

Or in other words - our senses. Our eyes and ears, our senses of touch, taste and smell. These are the She'arim (the gates) the points of entry, whereby information enters into our hearts and minds.

As Judges, we are cautioned that we are to act honestly and with great integrity, which can only occur after we have received the testimony, or the data as it were, upon which we will make our decisions. The Torah urges us to be careful about the kind of information we allow to enter our system, and to exercise sound judgment and have enforcers at every entry point.

We must always recognize our human vulnerability. In secular courts, when testimony is given that is considered improper, one of the attorneys may object to its admissibility. If the judge agrees, he has that part of the testimony stricken from the record. The jury is then instructed to disregard the improper testimony.

It is legitimate to question the effectiveness of an order to disregard improper testimony. Although they may try to ignore it, jurors may not be capable of dismissing testimony from their minds once they have heard it, regardless of the Judge's instructions. What they have absorbed may forever influence their thinking.

In other courtroom situations pretrial motions may result in testimony that might never be admitted. We can understand, therefore, the Torah instructing us to be careful of the types of data we allow to enter into our systems and to become discriminating about our judgment processes.

Take for example the effects that television may have on our behavior. The violence and highly provocative scenes and dialogue that are broadcast on television cannot help but influence how we think, feel and act. The Torah disagrees with those who claim that these violent or provocative scenes do not influence us.

The producers of such shows charge corporations millions of dollars per commercial to sell a particular food, or drink, or mechanical device. Are astute business people, so foolish, that they would squander huge amounts of money on something that would NOT influence the behavior of the television viewer?

Scientific evidence shows that the consumer IS influenced by what he sees and hears on television. How, then, can some people claim (and I hear them daily on talk-radio) that graphic and violent scenes that are repeated over and over again, have absolutely no influence on the minds and attitudes of viewers?

Our society is presently in a state of moral decay. What was unacceptable just a generation ago is politically correct today. Our thinking has been influenced by improper evidence and testimony that has been introduced into our systems.

The Sh'loh Hakodosh reveals that we are all judges. Every time we make a decision, we are making a judgment call. While all of us wish to make proper decisions, are our decisions really free of bribes? Do we consider whether something is right or wrong solely on its merits or is our decision affected by what we would like to do?" Isn't the desire for gratification a powerful bribe that can weigh heavily on the decision making process? Aren't we swayed to follow our desires, rather than do what is morally and ethically correct?

The Parsha tells us that: "Ki Hashochad Y'aver...Visalef . (For bribery blinds...and distorts)."

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine, and Director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Centre for Substance Abuse, and also a Chassidic Jew, comments that, "when the Torah speaks of a bribe that blinds and distorts, the Torah is in fact describing two powerful psychological forces - denial and rationalization.

When a person denies the reality before him, he cannot see properly and is therefore psychologically blinded. But there are times that the impact of reality is so great, that it may break through the denial. In such cases, rationalization comes into play. It so distorts our thinking by providing concepts that seem perfectly logical and so convincing, that we accept them as being true. In this way, the effect of the denial is maintained."

Rabbi Dr. Twerski goes on to say, that this is frequently exhibited in his work with substance abusers. "A person who may drink excessively and ruinously is usually adamant in his denial, that alcohol is a problem. When alcohol causes such disastrous consequences that he can no longer deny that there is a problem, then rationalization takes over. Yes, there is a problem, but it is never alcohol. It is the wife, the boss, the corrupt system, it is the inconsiderateness and unfairness of others. But it is never alcohol that is responsible."

What is true of alcohol for the alcoholic, is equally true for any kind of destructive behavior that one refuses to abandon. This is why the Mitzvah of Shoftim (Judges), was given to each and every one of us. We must act responsibly, as fair Judges, which includes deciding which evidence, is or is not admissible. The Torah cautions us to be on guard for the bribes - the influences that threaten to distort our judgment.

It is for this reason that the next verse is very unusual. I have regularly tried to point out, that the Torah often uses language that is incongruous with common usage. Sometimes the tense, or the gender might change within a particular verse of the Torah. These are signs to us of a deeper meaning. This week's Parsha uses double language.

"Tzedek, Tirdof" (Justice, Justice, must you pursue) verse 20.

We learn from this double language that we must not only expect justice from the legal system that Judaism imposes upon us, but we are also expected to live our own private lives by this very same system. Our lives, the lives of our families, as well as our communal life, must be mandated by Justice.

We must not allow the bribery of instant gratification to influence us. We must measure our actions by what is moral and ethical by Torah standards, and not by what is enjoyable and profitable. By doing so, we become our own Judges - Judges of the highest integrity. And the life that we lead will always be a living blessing.

In this month before our High Holidays, may we set enforcers over our gates. May we carefully discriminate which types of influences may enter our minds and our hearts. And may we realize that by doing so, our sense of Justice will be cultivated so that each one of us may be an instrument of goodness in a world that is starving for virtue.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig

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