Parshas Shoftim (5769)
This week’s Torah portion starts off with a commandment that the Jewish people, upon entering the Land of Israel, establish a fair and just court system: “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates … and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deuteronomy 16:18).
This verse is troubling. After all, if the Torah simply meant to instruct us to set up courts and judges in every city in Israel, why did it use the strange expression “in your gates” which sounds like we’re appointing security guards at the borders.
The Shela”h and the Shem MiShmuel explain that this commandment has to be understood on a deeper level, in addition to its simple meaning that the Jewish people must establish a court system in Israel. The “gates” mentioned in the verse allude to the personal gates of the human body, the seven orifices which are a conduit to four of the five senses i.e. two ears, two eyes, two nostrils and a mouth. These seven gates are the way external stimuli enter into a person, and through them we can impact the world around us as well. Our eyes see all kinds of things we shouldn’t be seeing, our ears hear all manner of gossip and evil speech, we stick our noses into other people’s business, and our mouths do their fair share of inappropriate speech as well.
So the Torah instructs us to set up shoftim (judges) and shotrim (officers) at each of those seven gates, to ensure that we use them properly. First we must “judge” everything that our eyes see or our ears hear, or that our mouths are about to speak, to see if it is positive and beneficial or negative and harmful. And then we need to be “officers” of those gates whose responsibility it is to make sure that proper judgment is carried out. The verse continues that if we follow this advice and appoint judges and officers at all of our gates, we will merit a “righteous judgment” for ourselves at all times.
This idea of “guarding our gates” is echoed in a beautiful commentary I once read on the Siddur (Prayer Book). Before every Shemoneh Esrei (The “Eighteen Blessings” of the Amidah) that we pray in conversation with G-d, we begin with the introductory verse, “My Lord, open my lips, so that my mouth may declare Your praise”.
It is difficult to understand why one needs to pray for “his lips to be opened” before commencing prayer. I mean, last I checked, my lips weren’t surgically sealed so that I would require Divine assistance to open them and pray to G-d. So what does this verse really mean?
The Yaaros Devash explains based on a Midrash which teaches that when G-d created the tongue, He recognized its potential to cause harm, so He concealed it inside the mouth and secured it with a double lock – the teeth and the lips – which are meant to guard the tongue from speaking evil. When we stand in prayer in front of G-d, the recitation of the introductory verse to the Shemoneh Esrei serves to remind us of the potential hazards of careless speech and of our responsibility to guard our tongue from speaking evil by shutting our lips tight. For, in essence, it says to G-d, “I have done the best I can to keep my lips closed for most of the day and to refrain from forbidden speech. So now please allow me to open my lips in permissible speech and to declare Your praises.”
The truth is that we could all use a few more “judges” and “officers” when it comes to what we allow through our own “gates” all day long – be it the gossip and trash talk we often hear and speak around the water cooler at work, or the many other ways in which we abuse the gifts of speech, sight, and sound that G-d gave us - and even more so when it comes to what we allow our children to see and hear.
I recently read some frightening statistics online. Did you know that the average child will watch 8,000 murders on TV before finishing elementary school? By age eighteen, the average American has seen 200,000 acts of violence on TV, including 40,000 murders. And that doesn’t even include all the inappropriate sexual innuendo and other negative messages that our kids are taking in through the various media from a very young age. Who knows what kind of horrible impact this has on our kids?
The Hebrew month of Elul has just begun, which means that Rosh HaShanah, the Day of Judgment, is just around the corner. Maybe this is a good time for us to start thinking more seriously about what we let ourselves and our very impressionable kids take in (and give out) through the seven gates – this way we will hopefully merit a “righteous judgment” for the coming year, enhancing our lives and the lives of our children in the process.