By: Rabbi Osher Jungreis
The parsha opens with the words, “Judges and officers shall you appoint for yourselves in all of your gates.” (Deut. 16:17) There are many levels on which we can understand the passages of the Torah. A simple reading reveals that even thousands of years ago, in every hamlet, in every town, and in every city of Israel, there was a functioning judicial system. Judges–men of enormous integrity and moral excellence, who were not only knowledgeable of the laws of the Torah, but more importantly, lived by them, led the people in truth and sanctity. “Dodge cities”, in which anarchy reigned, were never tolerated in our history. This, in and of itself, is quite remarkable when you consider the evil and corruption that was prevalent in those days, and which continues to plague us to this day. Only Divinely ordained laws could have endowed us with such a righteous judicial system as mandated in this parsha.
On yet another level, this passage can serve as a road map for personal spiritual growth. The gates at which we must place judges and officers are our personal gates through which we receive impressions and through which we impact on others. Altogether, they number seven. They include our two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and mouth. We have to place judges at these gates–meaning that we have to be judicious as to what we allow ourselves to see, hear, and say, and we have to have “officers”–strong convictions to enforce our decisions. Of all our gates, our lips are the most powerful our sages teach that “life and death are in the tongue”. Therefore, a nature has provided us with two gates to safeguard the tongue–our lips and our teeth. Before we speak, we must close those gates and consider carefully whether that which we say will be helpful or damaging. Let us remember that what we do not say, we can always say later, but that which escapes our lips, we cannot retrieve.
There is yet another interpretation of this passage. Before judging others, we should judge ourselves. People have a tendency to overlook their own foibles while demanding perfection of their fellow man. Therefore, if we place judges at our personal gates, then we will succeed in overcoming our negative traits, and that’s one of the best ways to prepare for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. This parsha is laden with commandments that will prepare us for these most awesome days in the Jewish calendar year.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is a time of judgment when our destiny is decided in the heavens above.
Each passage in the parsha can be understood on many different levels. We are told that when our forefathers came to the land of Israel, they were to “set a king above them” But everything written in the Torah is eternal, for all generations, so commandments also have meaning for us, we too have to “set a King, above us–the Almighty G-d.” During the High Holy Days our Shachris–morning service always commences with the awesome words HAMELECH–THE KING–our sages would actually tremble when the cantor pronounced those mighty words.
Whether we are in the privacy of our homes, in the workplace, or on vacation, we must always remember to set the King–G-d above us. As the Psalmist King David proclaimed; “G-d is forever before me”
The Torah does not abide arrogance. “There is no room for Me in the arrogant heart: says G-d. Arrogance however, is an occupational hazard for monarchs. Our parsha teaches that to protect the king from this disease, he had to write two Torah scrolls- one of which had to at all times be carried on his right arm, and the other kept in his treasury. Those Torah scrolls were there to remind him that as august as his position might be, and as much wealth as he might have in his treasury, he is bound by the Torah’s commandments, for above all, he is a servant of G-d.
In our own generation, arrogance is rife. We must learn from the laws of the King that the best antidote for this malaise of the soul is Torah. It is only when you delve into G-d’s Word that you realize your responsibility to your Creator and your fellow man.
When referring to the king sitting on his throne, the text uses a very odd expression–K’Shivto”–“like he was sitting”–meaning that at all times, even when sitting on his throne, the king of Israel had to be aware that he had no right to occupy the throne, for that was a privilege reserved for the One and only One–the Almighty G-d…. a lesson that our generation would do well to imbibe.
Finally, let us consider that G-d gave three specific commandments pertaining to kings, and advanced reasons for them, which is most unusual, for the Torah never puts forth reasons for observance–the very fact that G-d commanded must suffice. Moreover, once a reason is given, there is a temptation to second guess the Word of G-d. For example, G-d prohibited the king from having too many wives and the reason given is “so that they should not turn His heart astray”. Solomon, the wisest of all kings rationalized that he could handle it, that he would not allow anyone to divert him. In his old age however, his many wives brought tragedy upon his kingdom.
All this teaches us that we should never be overly confident, we should never believe that we can be smarter than the commandments. We convince ourselves that we can handle the many temptations of twenty-first century life only to succumb to those temptations and sadly lose our way. So as we approach Rosh Hashana let us truly crown G-d as our King. If ever this message was relevant, it is today. We must all be humbled and realize that everything depends on G-d, that in a second, our best laid plans can be washed away. So on this Rosh Hashana let us truly crown G-d our King.
We are now in the month of Elul, which is an acronym for “Ani L`Dodi V`Dodi Li”–”I am my beloved`s and My beloved is Mine” symbolizing the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people, built upon a covenant of eternal love. The month of Elul ushers in the High Holy Day season. As we have already mentioned, in preparation for these awesome days, twice daily, we recite Psalm 27, “L`Dovid HaShem Ori V`Yishi – HaShem is my light and my salvation.” My “light” refers to Rosh HaShana, and “my salvation” to Yom Kippur. The last words of the psalm are“kaveh el HaShem“- “Trust in the L-rd” (pray), strengthen your heart–meaning that even if our prayers are not initially answered, we must remain steadfast and continue to pray.
The shofar is blown until Erev Rosh HaShana. The essential purpose of shofar blowing during this period is to awaken each and every one of us to the challenges of the High Holy Day season. Therefore, we must prepare ourselves through our time-tested weapons of tshuva, tefiloh and tzedukah–repentance, prayer and charity, which G-d promises will cancel all evil decrees.