“We Are All Judges and Kings”
It is at this point in time that we all begin to realize that the summer is ending. There is something about mid-August that says, “The summer is waning.” School children begin to experience the anxieties that come with the anticipation of the return to school; vacationers hasten to relish the last of the “lazy, hazy days;” and the baseball season is at the stage when the pennant and wild-card races begin to really heat up.
Spiritually too, there is a change going on inside of us. The month of Elul, the last month before the New Year, has begun, and with it comes the sound of the shofar which literally signals the fast approaching High Holidays and Days of Awe. The shofar simply gives voice to the inner feeling of “the fun times are over, it is time to get serious.”
It is precisely at this season that we read the Torah portion, Parshat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9). We open our bibles to this Torah portion in anticipation of some words to edify each of us as individuals. We hope to find verses which will goad us toward introspection and inspire us to improve ourselves in many ways.
But that is not what we find in the parsha of Shoftim. We are disappointed in our search for a deeply personal message in this week’s Torah selection.
What we find instead are laws and narratives which seem to be meant for someone else, not for us mere struggling ordinary mortals. The passages which we read are directed toward the elite stratum of our society, to the leaders, to the judges and kings.
The parsha opens with a description of the judicial and legal institutions, and with the establishment of a locale which we are to visit if we wish to consult priests and Levites, and experts in the law. The parsha proceeds to speak of kingship and royalty, of the privileges and responsibilities of the priestly class, of the role of prophets, and even of the structure of the military.
Where is the role of the individual in all of this? At this time of year, when those of us who are serious about our religious responsibilities are searching for personal guidance and spiritual illumination, what lessons can we learn from these texts which seem to be addressing a more lofty audience? What is a humble person to gain from laws of societal governance? Of what relevance are the responsibilities of judges and priests and kings to those of us with pedestrian concerns?
There are, of course, numerous approaches to resolving this quandary. But there is one approach which I would like to suggest and which seems to me to be of great practical utility.
To explain this approach, I must remind you of an important movement in the history of the Jewish people which had its roots in the middle of the 19th century. A man named Rabbi Israel Salanter was disturbed at the superficiality of the religious life that he observed even in the most traditional and observant communities of the Eastern Europe of his time. He felt that people were numb, or at least indifferent, to the important ethical issues which he considered to be the core of our faith.
And so he initiated a religious revolution known as the Mussar Movement, which was designed to once again place ethics and spirituality at the center of Jewish religious life.
This column is not the place to describe in detail the development of this movement over the course of the last century and a half. Suffice it to say that this movement, like so many similar ones, splintered into a number of different streams. One of these was centered in the small Lithuanian village of Kelm, and another in a suburb of the large city of Kovno, Slobodka.
The “old man” of Kelm, Rabbi Simcha Zissel, emphasized man’s limitations, his frailties and vulnerabilities. His followers would spend the days of Elul in fear and trepidation, hoping to overcome the burdens of their sins.
The other “old man,” Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel of Slobodka, had a very different spiritual strategy. He encouraged his disciples to recognize gadlut ha’adam, the greatness of man. He urged his followers to recognize their strength and near infinite potential.
Far be it from me to decide which approach is correct. I believe that they are both correct, but I feel that each is designed for its own time and place. In our time and in our place, I am convinced that it is the Slobodka approach which is preferable.
Nowadays, paradoxically, our external demeanor of arrogance and hubris is but a mask for deep inner feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. We fail to understand that we are capable, as individuals and as a nation, of gigantic accomplishments. We need to be reminded not of our limitations, but of our capabilities.
Perhaps it is for this reason that we read the parsha of Shoftim at this time of year. It reminds us that we are all “judges and kings.” We all need to take our responsibilities seriously. Each and every one of us is a leader, if not over throngs of thousands, then over our communities, neighborhoods and families. Or at the very least, over ourselves.
This week, we are reminded that from our very beginnings we were given the appellation “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” The road to teshuvah, to authentic repentance, is not a private and solitary road. It is not a road which we travel as isolated individuals, with the puny tools of introspection and contemplation.
Rather, with the approach of the New Year, we must regard ourselves as part of a great nation, and imagine ourselves as leaders of that nation. That is why the parsha of Shoftim, with its emphasis upon large social institutions and systems of governance and military defense, is read at this time of year. It is to remind us, nay to persuade us, that we are all “judges and kings.”