Parshat Shoftim תשע”ט

“Good fences make good neighbors,” goes the saying. When boundaries and limitations are visible and clearly defined, it is easy to respect others’ property. People run into trouble when it is unclear to them where their domain stops and the domain of the other begins.

Rabbeinu Bachyei (1255-1340) begins his commentary on this week’s Torah portion with the verse in Proverbs 3:17 describing the Torah and its laws as follows:

“דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נֹעַם וְכָל נְתִיבֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם”

“Its ways are pleasant ways, and all of its ways are peaceful.”

Because peace among Jews is so important to HaShem, the Torah commands us to have a court in every city. The judges will apply the Torah’s peaceful laws to the Jewish people, and when guidelines are clear, peace will reign. Yet there must also be a police system to enforce the courts’ judgments or the courts will lose control. The opening statement of this portion (Deuteronomy 16:18) provides:

“שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת הָעָם מִשְׁפַּט צֶדֶק”

“You must appoint judges and officers for you in all your gateways (cities), which HaShem your G-d gives you for your tribes, and they shall righteously judge the people.”

The courts’ erudite judges will render clear decisions as far as who is correct and what belongs to whom and thus maintain peace between the masses.

The commentaries wonder about the use of the word “לְךָ”, for you, in the verse. Why the extra word?

They explain that this commandment not only directs the leaders of every community to appoint judges and officers; it also commands each one of us to appoint judges and officers for our gateways. How so? The Shelah HaKadosh (R. Isaiah HaLevi Horowitz, 1560-1630) explains that a person’s body has seven gateways: his eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth. These seven gateways require a judgment by the judge (you!) to determine what should be allowed to enter or to exit.

We must carefully judge, evaluate, and screen the images that enter through our eyes so that no inappropriate ones contaminate us. We must use great discretion in directing our gaze, judging if what we wish to see is even worth looking at, let alone whether it will be destructive or disruptive to our wellbeing.

We must also carefully judge and screen the words and sounds that enter through our ears lest they contain Lashon HaRa or slanderous words against the Torah or are of a crude nature that could endanger our soul.

The words that leave our mouth must be carefully judged and screened to be sure we are not spreading Lashon HaRa or slander. We must also carefully guard our mouths (and our souls!) by discriminating as to what foods we allow to enter that gateway.

(The Sages did not specifically speak about the nostrils, but one can come up with something after some thought.)

There is another nuance in the word “לְךָ”—“for you”—and that is make the judgments and policemen for yourself, not for your comrade Jew. Although we have an obligation to point out another Jew’s mistake to help him correct his behavior, (“הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ”, “Reprove your comrade”, Leviticus 19:17), we are still not allowed to judge him. Judge yourself—not your fellow Jew. Because you are unable to know his situation and what brought him to act as he did, you are not allowed to render a judgment.

The Midrash adds an interesting perspective on the judges and policemen that human beings require to keep them in line. This idea does not come from people at all, but, rather, from little creatures that we step on all the time, yet from which can learn a lesson.

“זה שאמר הכתוב “לֵךְ אֶל נְמָלָה עָצֵל רְאֵה דְרָכֶיהָ וַחֲכָם אֲשֶׁר אֵין לָהּ קָצִין שֹׁטֵר וּמֹשֵׁל” (משלי ו, ו-ז) … ומהו “ראה דרכיה וחכם?” רבנן אמרי ראה דרך ארץ שיש בה, שבורחת מן הגזל. אמר ר”ש בן חלפתא מעשה בנמלה אחת שהפילה חטה אחת והיו כולם באות ומריחות בה ולא היתה אחת מהן נוטלת אותה. באה אותה שהיתה שלה ונטלה. ראה חכמה שיש בה וכל השבח הזה שיש בה שלא למדה מבריה ולא שופט ולא שוטר יש לה שנאמר (שם) אשר אין לה קצין שוטר ומושל אתם שמניתי לכם שופטים ושוטרים עאכ”ו שתשמעו להן הוי שופטים ושוטרים תתן לך בכל שעריך” )מדרש רבה דברים, ה, ב)

“The Midrash quotes King Solomon from a verse from Proverbs (6:6-7). “Go to the ant, lazy person; see its ways and become smart for it doesn’t have a officer, a policeman or a ruler.” What does it mean “learn its ways and become smart?” The Sages teach that this refers to how the ant runs away from theft. Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta told the story of an ant that dropped a kernel of wheat. All the other ants smelled it and left it alone until its owner came and took it. Look at all this wisdom that wasn’t learned from any other creature, and it does so even without a judge or policeman to stop it from taking it. You (human beings), for whom I appointed judges and policemen, how much more so you should listen to them. [It is remarkable to note that the Sages knew that it was the particular smell of the ant that deterred the other ants. Only recently did scientists discover that each ant has its own unique pheromone that it puts on the morsel of food to claim it as his. This is why no other ant will touch it.]

The Midrash explains the above message. The ant has no policeman guarding him from taking something that doesn’t belong to him, yet he will never do so. If it is not his, he will not touch it. We need to look at the ant and learn this concept. If it does not belong to me, I am not allowed even to touch it (except, perhaps, to safeguard it if it may be lost or damaged).

This is the basis for the teaching of Rabbi Yochanan (Talmud, Eruvin 100b):

“אמר רבי יוחנן אילמלא לא ניתנה תורה היינו למידין וגזל מנמלה”

“Rabbi Yochanan said: “Had the Torah not been given we would have learned not to steal from the ant.”

We can ask Rabbi Yochanan: Why do we learn not to steal from the ant? Why do we not learn that we are permitted to steal from the entire animal kingdom who steal all the time? Indeed, some people believe that it is improper to steal because, as Hillel the Elder said, “That which you do not like, do not do to your fellow.” But this reasoning fails. What about the one who says, “I don’t mind if people steal from me because I want to be able to steal from them- it’s survival of the fittest, you know, and let the stronger man win! This system works perfectly in the animal kingdom!”

Rabbi Yochanan’s statement comes from the understanding that HaShem gives each person what he has; what HaShem has determined he has coming to him. The correct reason one may not steal is that the item it belongs to another. It was given to him, not to me. If I was supposed to have it, I would! This is the lesson that we learn from the ant. Once an ant has put his scent on a kernel and has thereby “acquired” it, no other ant will take it. The rest of the animal kingdom has no form of “ownership” so there is no concept of “stealing.”

Considering that no ant will ever take a morsel touched by another ant, would it be correct to assert, “Ants are very honest little creatures who never steal!?” Hardly. “Honesty” has nothing to do with it! Their instinct precludes them from taking something covered with the pheromone of a different ant. The proof : The proof is: From where did they get the kernel of wheat in the first place? Do you think they were careful not to take it from someone’s field? Or have they stolen it from the wheat’s owner? Everything they “own” is stolen goods!

Similarly, some people pride themselves in that they have never stolen anything from anybody. They don’t steal because they personally feel that it’s not right to steal. But it’s not a personal decision. Only the Torah contains the laws of what constitutes stealing and what does not. According to the Torah, if a person so much as borrows something without permission, even though he intends to give it right back, he has stolen. So a person may think that he has never stolen, but if he didn’t learn the Torah’s guidelines of what is stealing and what is not, he could be just like the ants, who everything they have is really stolen.  

Our Sages pose an interesting question. Shouldn’t the animals, each of whom has an area in which it is expert, be considered greater than the human being who can’t do any of the things that the animals can? So many animals are stronger and faster than we are; and birds can fly, and fish can swim and stay under water forever. The mountain goat can climb the side of a mountain without losing its balance and can jump from pointed stone to pointed stone without fear. The ants hustle and store up food for many lifetimes, and the list goes on and on.

The Sages answer that man is nonetheless greater than all of them because he can imitate all of the various animals’ attributes. Man invented the car, which goes faster than a cheetah. Man invented the crane, which lifts more weight than can any elephant. Man invented the plane which flies faster and higher than any hawk.

The pilot of a new Airbus 350 Series plane was extolling his new plane’s virtues. He said that although the plane weighed over 650,000 lbs., the controls were very light and easy to work. The wing was modeled after an eagle’s wing, which has a wave in it instead of being straight along the top. He continued to say that because of this wave, it would use half the fuel than the Boeing 747 that it replaced.

HaShem created every creature perfect, with all the features that it needs to survive and reproduce. He has also exclusively endowed man with the ability learn from the creatures’ physical attributes and adapt them to his needs.

There is yet a deeper application of this concept. Animals not only have unique physical attributes that we can learn, our Sages have identified their non-physical personality traits. Sheep, for example, are excellent followers, faithfully following the lead sheep wherever it goes. The Jewish people are often compared to a flock of sheep because we faithfully follow HaShem, our Leader. The Mishnah, Rosh HaShanah 1:2, says that on Rosh HaShanah each person passes in front of HaShem for judgment like sheep being counted, one by one. He is being judged on how good a “sheep” he was during the previous year. Did he follow his Shepherd faithfully?

Animals, however, lack discretion as to how and when to use their characteristic. Indeed, they will use it time and again, even to their own detriment. One time the lead sheep decided to go over a cliff, and hundreds of sheep faithfully followed it straight to their death. Similarly, the arrogance of many a leopard has led to his death when opposing a more formidable foe.

But we, as people created in the image of HaShem with the ability to choose how we act, are responsible to make the right choices of how to use the innate character traits that are part of our makeup. We need to police them and use them with weighed discretion.

The Sages have identified the unique traits of certain animals and have instructed us to use them in our service to HaShem. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) 5:20 says:

“יְהוּדָה בֶן תֵּימָא אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי עַז כַּנָּמֵר, וְקַל כַּנֶּשֶׁר, וְרָץ כַּצְּבִי, וְגִבּוֹר כָּאֲרִי לַעֲשׂוֹת רְצוֹן אָבִיךָ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמָיִם”

“Rabbi Yehudah ben Taima says: “Be as arrogant as a leopard, as light as an eagle, run like a deer, and be as mighty as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”

The Mishnah is instructing us to use these attributes in our service to HaShem. Although arrogance is generally undesirable, there is an appropriate time and place for it. When one is embarrassed to ask a question when he doesn’t understand something, or when he is questioning his ability to do something, he should become a bit arrogant and forge forward to accomplish what he needs to accomplish.

He should be as light as the eagle who flies directly into the sunlight. So, too, when you are daunted by a matter in Torah that you cannot understand and feel it is as blinding as the sun, be like the eagle who isn’t intimidated. Persevere, continue flying, and you will surely come to an understanding.

When a deer is threatened by a predator, its only defense is to outrun it. So, run like a deer from ideas and concepts that threaten your faith in the Torah and in HaShem.

Be as mighty as a lion to overcome your evil inclination. As Pirkei Avot 4:1 says, “Who is mighty? One who conquers his own evil inclination.”

The first words of the Shulchan Aruch,  the Code of Jewish Law (written by Rabbi Yosef Karo 1488-1575) are:

יתגבר כארי לעמוד בבוקר לעבודת בוראו

One should be as mighty as a lion to rise in the morning to serve his Creator . . . ” (Shulchan Aruch I:1)

Sometimes, getting out of bed in the morning requires the might of a lion just to overcome the desire to stay in bed just ten minutes more. (Then another ten minutes . . . )

We have seen that arrogance is attributed to the leopard, and might is attributed to the lion. The Sages have further observed that haughtiness is attributed to the horse, modesty to the cat, and alacrity to the ant. Each animal has a specific character trait from which we can learn.

Just after HaShem created Adam, HaShem brought each animal that He created to him, who gave them names (Genesis 2:19).

“וַיִּצֶר ה’ אֱלֹקִים מִן הָאֲדָמָה כָּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה וְאֵת כָּל עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיָּבֵא אֶל הָאָדָם לִרְאוֹת מַה יִּקְרָא לוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָא לוֹ הָאָדָם נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה הוּא שְׁמוֹ”

“And HaShem crafted from the earth all the animals of the field and the birds of the heavens, and He brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called the living creature, that was its name.”

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser, 1809-1879) explains that man possesses all the attributes in the entire animal kingdom. Because man was created in the image of HaShem with the ability to become a perfect human being, he was endowed with the multitude of different personality traits. Man’s job in life is to use the appropriate ones at the proper time and place, in the right amounts. When he knows how to do this, his behavior is perfect.

“וזה שאמר הכתוב: “ויצר ה’ כל חית השדה ויבא אל האדם,” רצונו לומר, שכל תכונותיהם ומדותיהם הביא אל האדם שנפש האדם כוללת את כולם, ולכן הביאם אליו לראות מה יקרא לו, כי הוא ידע מנפשו ליחד שם לכל כח וכח השתול בכל בעל חי”.

“This is what the Torah meant when it said: “and He brought them to Adam” all their unique qualities character traits he brought to man whose soul comprises all of them. HaShem brought them to Adam to see what he would call them, because Adam knew from his own soul how to identify and name the quality imbued in each animal.”

We can see in animals what the finest of character traits look like when they are unbridled and uncontrolled. The same trait that serves the animal so well may also lead it to its death. Sometimes, when we see animals fight, we can grasp that we look the same in some of our fights, where our good character traits are totally absent. We realize that all character traits must be judged for appropriateness and must be policed to be used in the right amounts.

This is one of the messages of this week’s Torah portion, “Judges and officers you must place in all of your gateways.”

When a Jew does this, he can perfect his character and reach his purpose on this earth.

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