Shabbat Shoftim: How To Be Judgemental

“Whoever studies the Torah for its own sake [l’shmah] merits many things…[among other things] it gives the individual sovereignty and dominion and the ability to judge.”  – Pirke Avot 6.1
By an interesting coincidence, it was on this week of Shabbat Shoftim (“judges”) that our weekly Talmud study class contemplated this teaching. At first glance we are, perhaps, not sure what to do with it. Sovereignty and dominion? Surely Rabbi Meir, the Talmudic sage to whom this saying is attributed, didn’t mean that those of us who study Torah will all become queens and kings.
Jews who study are best served by remembering the four levels of interpretation we bring to bear on any given verse, teaching, or story: Peshat, Drash, Remez, and Sod, known by their acronym (slightly out of order): PaRDeS, or “orchard.” Applied to the opening verse of our parashat hashavua, our parashah of the week, we can begin to see what “sovereignty and dominion and the ability to judge” one might gain through the study of Torah.
You shall set judges and officers in all your cities (Devarim 16.18)
* peshat, the simple, surface layer of meaning: Jewish ethics both ancient and modern require courts so that justice may be upheld in society.
* drash, the “midrash” layer of thinking more deeply about  meaning:  notice that this is said in the plural: one must not judge alone. (Pirke Avot 4.8)
 
* remez, the “hinted” meaning: “The human body is a city with seven gates—seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth.
It is incumbent upon us to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what should be admitted and what should be kept out,
and “officers” to enforce the judges’ decisions . . .”  (Siftei Kohen)
 
* sod, or, the “secret” meaning: we cannot know this meaning easily or right away, if at all, or ever. It may remain secret from us, a useful reminder of the limits
of our understanding.
 
Now what can we do with “the one who studies Torah for its own sake will merit….sovereignty, dominion, and the ability to judge.”?
 
* peshat: immersing oneself in Torah creates a rich inner world for oneself, even as children create such meaningful worlds of play for themselves, in which they are fully in control.
* drash: the mystics teach that focusing upon the mitzvot (the heart of Torah and our relationship with it) allows us to become sovereign over our own impulses and desires.
* remez: when one studies Torah l’shmah, “for its own sake,” one will come to understand something about judgment.
 
This hint is especially important for us, who spend much of our time in ill-considered or uninformed, emotional judgment of others. Whether we read it or hear it, our yetzer hara’, our evil inclination, races to believe the worst of others. To study, or in the Hebrew verb to hear, l’shmah, means without emotion and without any motive other than to learn, with openness to learning and to having our convictions sometimes upset and overturned.
 
For example, have you heard something about someone else and assumed a position of judgment about that person, a position you defend against new evidence, as a result? If you judged based on one hearing, you have violated the drash level of this mitzvah. No one of us can judge alone.
 
As for the sod level of this mitzvah, the mitzvah of setting up justice in our gates to be judged and carried out, we may not discern it yet, but looking all around us, we see indications of the horrors that we court when we do not take care with this mitzvah. We may not have complete sovereignty or dominion, yet to the extent that we have some capacity, may our judgments of each other be l’shmah, that we might contribute to that ethic in the communities we influence by our every act.
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Shabbat BeHar/BeHukkotai: Taking Refuge in the PaRDeS of Learning

Yesterday I was on a conference call with a national social justice organization, during which we were told that “usually, we expect to operate with a six-month window. Lately we have revised that to six days.”  Such is the sense of frantic, non-stop chaos in the political sphere of our nation’s existence.
Thank G*d that we Jews have the ability to balance our necessary social and political awareness with a much longer, calmer perspective: that of the halakhah, the structured path, and the aggadah, the informing narrative, of our people’s long history. No matter what is happening in the moment, you can gain a moment of calm with which to view a wider horizon by going through a simple mental exercise: what’s the parashat hashavua (the parashah, or section, of the week), and how does it offer resonance in this moment?
The parashah this shavua is a double: BeHar, “on the mountain”, and BeHukkotai, “with My laws.”  Applying our four-fold PaRDeS tool for exploring Torah we find much that can help us put the latest news of today and every day into a manageable context. Consider it a refuge from immediacy. Pardes is an ancient Persian loan word meaning “garden”; it is also the root of the word “paradise.”
1. P is for peshat; on the “simple” or surface level of meaning we have this teaching: BeHar, on the mountain, refers to Mount Sinai. It’s a surprising reminder that here, as we finish up the Book VaYikra (Leviticus) we haven’t yet left the mountain where we stood all together to enter into the Covenant. It took us only fifty days to arrive there, but we have been there ever since. And when we do leave, soon enough, to begin the wanderings described in the Book BaMidbar (Numbers), we will take with us a souvenir in the most significant sense of the word. That eternal reminder, or azkarah (memorial) of the Sinai experience, is referred to in the name of the next parashah, BeHukkotai, “with My laws.” On the first day that our people ventured forth from Sinai, and on every single day since, we have had with us the gift of the guide we got there.
2. D is for drash (interpretation), and yes, the letters go out of the word’s order: on this deeper level of investigating meaning we dive beneath the surface meaning of a verse. These two parshiyot are full of the laws that are meant to create an ethical Jewish society, among them this one: “when you buy and sell property, you shall not defraud your neighbor” (Lev.25.14). Rabbi Simkha Bunem of Pyshiskha (1765-1827) “drashed”, i.e. taught as a midrash (interpretation) on this law: “Legally, it is only forbidden to defraud one’s neighbor. But a good Jew must go beyond the letter of the law, and take care not to delude oneself, either.” Understood this way, we are commanded not to cheat ourselves in terms of value, mentally, physically or spiritually. You know what you’re worth, as an Image of G*d in the world, and what your neighbor is worth, too.
3. R is for remez (hint). In parashat BeHar we are commanded to count 49 years and to declare every 50th year to be a Yovel (“Jubilee”) year, a holy time: “you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants….you shall not sow, neither shall you reap.” (Lev.25.10-11) Hints might come from noticing context and juxtaposition, and just before this command is that of sounding the Shofar on the Day of Atonement in order to declare the Yovel year. Might we understand from this that the year cannot be considered holy, a year when there will be enough to eat without sowing and reaping, if Atonement is not achieved first? Could we understand this, further, as a warning that unless we care for the land and its inhabitants appropriately and ethically, it will not yield its abundance to us? The Torah itself leads us to this conclusion in parashat BeHukkotai, in which we are warned that if we abuse the land and its inhabitants, sooner or later the land will rest, but we will not be there to see it.
4. S is for sode (secret). We are aware of this level of understanding, but we cannot achieve it. There is that which will remain beyond us, and there is a mystery at the heart of life we will never understand. Rabbi Hayim of Tzantz taught that our awareness of our inability to understand life makes our lives a constant search through a dark, trackless forest. All we can do, the Rebbe said, is to hold hands, and look for the way together.
On this Shabbat, give thanks for sun and longer days in which to enjoy life as we can, understanding what we might of the chaotic days in which we live, grateful for learning that leads to deeper interpretations and community that supports us in our common seeking. This, too, is Torah, and we need to learn it.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.