"Judges and officers
shall you appoint in all your cities-which Hashem,
your G-d, gives you-for your tribes; and they shall judge the people with
righteous judgment." (16, 18; Artscroll translation)
Let me clarify that startling statement. I don't mean cocaine or amphetamines (which I never much messed with), nor am I referring to excessive quantities of coffee (which I never will forsake). I am talking about driving: doing 40 or even 50 sometimes in a 30 m.p.h. zone, gunning the engine on quiet residential streets, and so on. Not that I'm Rabbi Greased Lightning or anything, but I've certainly done my share of (illegal) foot-to-the floor accelerating as I hurry around Savannah to give one class or other on Torah legalities. ("All for a good cause," of course.)
Why am I doing penance now? Is it just because of the awe of the Day of Judgment approaching?
I sincerely thank G-d that it wasn't some horrible accident, or even a frightening near miss that has convinced me to change my ways. Rather, it was a tough-as-nails Southern lady from Brunswick, GA, who expertly taught a "defensive driving" course that I just took--a requirement for a social work internship I happen to be doing.
"Would you put your kids in the back seat at risk by driving unsafe?" she asked us. (NO, we shook our heads.) "Well, if you're driving unsafe while alone in the car, you're still putting your kids at risk if something would happen to you…and other kids in other cars or homes as well!" (She's got a point.) "And besides," she concluded, "you should never go ahead of the speed limit because it's NEVER legally okay." (Enough said.)
The lady's rectitude and unquestioning obedience to the law gave this sometimes corner-cutting (and boulevard-barreling) Yankee rabbi some healthy pangs of guilt. I walked out of class, and decided then and there that, by golly, I would begin to reform my automotive behavior. [Note: This does not necessarily apply at the present time to I-95, where my speedometer reading is still strictly a matter between me and My maker…and any highway patrolman who cares to notice.]
Do you know how hard it is to actually go 25 m.p.h., as the signs near my own house dictate? It feels like you're not moving at all, like something is drastically wrong with the engine…it feels like you'll never ever ever reach your destination…
Now, there are many crucial lessons to be learned here from all of this--some rather obvious, but no less important for that. First, how easy it is to become completely accustomed to doing what is wrong, and to justify it in assorted ways (or, more often, to put it out of consciousness in the hurry of the moment). Second, how strange it feels when one reverts back to the right and legal path after having so long gone astray. Third, and very pragmatically: you do get to your destination even when traveling at snail's pace, and-surprise-the amount of time saved by speeding recklessly through placid streets is usually negligible…and certainly not worth the risk to your neighbors or your nerves.
Finally, and the lesson that will help tie this (compelling) personal testimony back to the parsha: without a policeman sitting on the side of every single road we drive on, it is hard (but crucially important) to police ourselves. But it probably wouldn't hurt us, in the long run, to have more of those cops around.
This is the Torah's point of view. It's not going to take any chances. The parsha opens with the commandment: "Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities…" The Jewish people were commanded to set up a local judiciary in all the cities of the Land of Israel. As Rashi explains, the judges were rabbis who would decide issues of Torah law, and the officers were agents of the rabbinical court whose job it was to enforce the law. Billy clubs and all. Or, as Maimonidies describes them (in Hilchos Sanhedrin, Chapter 1, of his Mishneh Torah), "…those who wield the rod and the lash." He continues:
In other words, in a
Torah society as it is supposed to be (and once was) structured, there are
"officers" patrolling the streets and thoroughfares. Presumably,
in their 21st century incarnation (when Moshiach
comes), these cops will wield the most advanced laser devices available to
catch speeding rabbis who insist on disregarding the law. They will be
watchful to keep the inhabitants of the Torah society in line and remind
them of their obligations.
Please understand me. I live in America, and I like the relative freedom of the place; I'm not advocating Big Brother. I also know that the ideal of the Torah is to create a nation whose individuals have so internalized both awe and love of G-d that on their own, without the officers in the background, they will follow the Torah's laws. But the reality is that we're not on that level all the time…not even rabbis who write parsha sheets!
And if we really want to uphold this Torah, and truly believe that it is a "tree of life for those who grasp it" (as we say in our prayers)--a life of meaning and joy in this world, and an eternal life of closeness to G-d in the world to come--then we should welcome the idea of Torah officers on every street corner! We wouldn't want them to "wield the rod and the lash" against us, but we would be grateful that their presence reminds us of the law that we are so apt to forget and that we truly wish to uphold.
Like my driving teacher…who did everything but wield rod and lash to remind us of the law.
Of course, we should work to internalize the concept that G-d Himself is always watching us. As well as the awareness that G-d has given us such a holy and noble task (to be a "light unto the nations," and a blessing to all mankind), and that He loves and believes in each of us individually. This should help us to study and uphold the Torah gladly, with joy. But when the yetzer ha'ra gets tough, and temptation strikes, awareness of the cops can keep us in line…and prevent us from destroying ourselves and others.
Let me give you a little Chasidic Torah for the road (where, I'm confident, you will now observe the posted speed limit). Like many Chassidic commentators, the great S'fas Emes often examines the verses of the Torah at a microcosmic level, showing how they speak to the spiritual struggles and yearnings of the individual Jewish soul.
"Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities…" Actually, all your "gates" is the more literal translation (for judges would sit at the gates of the ancient cities). The S'fas Emes explains that the judges refer to one's intellectual understanding, and willing acceptance, of the laws of the Torah…for the judges clarify and adjudicate. The officers refer to one's actual completion of an action in practice…for the officers compelled people to follow the judges' rulings, regardless of their understanding or willing acceptance. Both aspects of one's spiritual life have to be utilized to properly serve G-d, he writes. In order to open the gates of the heart to the Torah, one needs both will and deed (ratzon and ma'aseh). If we want to serve G-d properly, we should strive to understand the Torah and mitzvos like the judges. But sometimes we may have to use "brute force" with ourselves (like the officers) when we fall short, for the moment, of complete understanding and acceptance.
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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