Parshah Summary – P’shat
The parshah opens with the instruction to appoint judges and law enforcement officers in every city. “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” Moses tells them. Crimes must be thoroughly investigated and a minimum of two credible witnesses is required for conviction. Furthermore, the Torah must be alive: in every generation, the law must be interpreted and applied in new ways. Moses than reviews laws governing the appointment and behavior of a king, along with the laws of the “cities of refuge” for the inadvertent murderer. Also set forth are the rules of war: the exemption from battle for one who has just built a home, planted a vineyard, married, or is “afraid and soft-hearted;” the requirement to offer terms of peace before attacking a city; and the prohibition against needlessly destroying something of value, such as the law that forbids cutting down fruit trees when laying siege – “For a human being is a tree of the field.” The parshah concludes with the law of the eglah arufah—the special procedure to be followed when a person is killed by an unknown murderer and the body is found in a field—which underscores the responsibility of the community and its leaders not only for what they do, but also for what they might have prevented from being done.
Torah of Awakening: Jewish Meditation Teaching
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכׇל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃
Judges and officers you shall place in all your gates that Hashem your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with fairness...
- Devarim (Deuteronomy) 11:26, Parshat Re’eh
Rabbi Hanokh told this story: A Polish girl hired herself out as a house worker to a wealthy family in Germany. There, they use the expression “to scare off” in their cooking. This means that when a pot of meat is boiling for soup and the broth begins to foam up, they would pour some cold water into it to prevent it from boiling over, so that they could calmly skim off the foam without it making a mess. Once, when the lady of the house had to go off to market while a pot of meat was cooking, she said to the girl, “Watch the soup, and don’t forget to ‘scare off.’” The girl didn’t know what this meant, but was afraid to admit it. So, when she saw the foam rising in the pot, she picked up a broom and shook it at the pot threateningly, while the foam boiled over and made a big mess.
“Now if you try to scare off the yetzer hara (lit. “evil impulse,” meaning ego), you will upset everything. You need to first ‘pour some cold water into’ it and then calmly ‘skim it off.’”
How do we do this? We “pour cold water on it” by admitting it, by becoming humble about our imperfections – that’s how we conquer ego. Sometimes, in feeling the weight of our misdeeds and embarrassments, we may try to push them out of our minds, to minimize them and focus instead on something positive, to “scare them off.” But, the wisdom of prayerfulness says to do the opposite: embrace them, admit them, ask for forgiveness; that’s the “cold water.”
אֱלֹהַי עַד שֶׁלֹּא נוֹצַֽרְתִּי אֵינִי כְדַאי,
וְעַכְשָׁו שֶׁנּוֹצַֽרְתִּי כְּאִלּוּ לֹא נוֹצַֽרְתִּי.
עָפָר אֲנִי בְּחַיָּי, קַל וָחֹֽמֶר בְּמִיתָתִי:
My God, before I was formed, I was not enough –
and now that I am formed, it is as if I am not formed.
I am dust in my life; how much more so in death…
עַד שֶׁלֹּא נוֹצַֽרְתִּי אֵינִי כְדַאי – before I was formed, I was not enough. That’s the fundamental feeling of ego: “I am not enough. I have to become more, I have to have more, I have to get better, I have to look better, I have to complete myself.” So, the prayer is crying out – look! Even before I got here, I didn’t even have a fighting chance. The deck was stacked against me, because the very feeling of being a someone, of being a being, is inherently one of incompleteness.
וְעַכְשָׁו שֶׁנּוֹצַֽרְתִּי כְּאִלּוּ לֹא נוֹצַֽרְתִּי – and now that I am formed, it is as if I am not formed. Meaning, I’m never fully formed! No matter what I do, there is always this sense of being almost defective. No wonder there is such a booming self-help industry! And yet, the paradox is that when we admit our incompleteness, we shift out of identification with the source of incompleteness – that is, the yetzer hara, the ego, the fragile self – and identify instead with no-thingness, with the open space within which the ego arises. That open space doesn’t care about its self-image, about appearing complete. It can admit: I am nothing! I am unworthy! And that No-Thing, that “not-caring-about-self-image,” is paradoxically full and complete; when we surrender and admit our incompleteness, that beautiful and intangible feeling of Completeness can arise on its own. That ineffable inner sense of Wholeness is represented by the letter ג gimel.
And when you feel this Wholeness, you will know that you are not the צוּרָה tzurah – you are not the ever-inadequate form. You don’t have to and you cannot perfect yourself as form. That’s why Yom Kippur comes every year. You don’t get atoned and then you’re all done. It’s like eating. You just had a wonderful meal, now you’re full. You never have to eat again, right? It’s like my beloved father-in-law: whenever he eats a really big and satisfying meal, he says, “I’m never eating again.” The humor, of course, is because matter how much you eat, a few hours later you have to eat again. That is why on Yom Kippur, you just let yourself be hungry, because you are not the hunger. You are not the form. Rather, all forms are perceived within the openness that you are, the vast field of awareness within which that sense of “me” appears – the field that is ever full and complete – that is ג gimel
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכׇל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ – Judges and officers you shall place in your gates… Who are the שֹׁפְטִים shoftim, the judges? Their job is to discern the truth of something and then make a decision based on that truth. And who are the שֹֽׁטְרִים shotrim, the officers? They enforce the decisions of the שֹׁפְטִים shoftim. These two functions in society also represent two functions on the spiritual path as well. To be a שׁוֹפֵט shofet is to see ourselves clearly, to not get “scared off” from facing our own faults, from the ways we tend to how act from ego. It is helpful to verbalize this, to “confess” in a prayerful way – that’s the essence of the Yom Kippur liturgy.
לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים וְלֹא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד – Don’t give preference to anyone and don’t take a bribe… 16:19 Meaning, try not to let your view be distorted by the ego’s desire to see oneself in a positive light; look at your “self” objectively. Rise and shine – pour the “cold water” on your head and wake up from the dreams of the ego! But the next step is then to “skim off the foam” – that’s the job of the שֹֽׁטְרִים shotrim, the officers. Because the point is not just to beat ourselves up and wallow in self-deprecation; that would also be ego, using the opposite strategy to avoid change. Instead, our task is to turn away from our old negative patterns and create new and positive ones:
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ – Justice Justice you shall pursue, so that you may live. It says צֶדֶק tzedek – meaning justice or fairness – twice. The first is that we must be impartial in how we see ourselves, and then the second is to transform and consciously choose a better path, living not from ego, but from our inherent Wholeness; this is the Path of ג Gimel.
In this week Shabbat Shoftim, the Sabbath of Judges, which is the first Shabbat of Elul, may our pots overflow blessings, arising from the Wholeness that we are, and may we not shrink away from facing our patterns that are in need of transformation in this coming time of teshuvah.
Read past teachings on Shoftim HERE.
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