In this week’s parsha, the opening pasuk says, “Shoftim v’shotrim titain lecha…”, “And you shall make for yourself judges and officers…”. Rabbeinu Bachye explains that the Shofet and the Shoteir explained in the pasuk are incumbent on each other. Just as it wouldn’t be sufficient to have a judge without whom to enforce the rules, so too it wouldn’t work to just have a police force without any lawmakers.
The Sh’la Hakadosh says that the pasuk ends with a lashon yachid, in singular tense. He explains, that this mitzvah to institute officers and judges isn’t just a mitzvah which was given to Yisrael as a klal, but also a lesson to each individual as a prat. Meaning, the pasuk isn’t just referring to an obligation given specifically for the community, rather it’s also teaching a real necessity for each individual.
The Shla explains that the pasuk is coming to teach us a very important correlation. Just as the community needs to appoint judges and enforcers for themselves in order to function properly, so too each individual needs to become a judge and an enforcer on himself in order to function properly. Being a judge refers to using the sechel; the ability to think about an action and determine whether or not it’s in accordance with the will of HaShem. However, like Rabbeinu Bachye explained, it’s not enough to just have judges. A person can’t just be the sechel. He needs to also be a shoteir, to enforce the right path on himself.
The Shulchan Aruch in siman 231 defines what it means to be an eved HaShem. He explains the obligation as being literally, an avdus to HaShem. Just as a servant who stands before a king is in a constant state of introspection, so too every individual in this world must be in a constant state of thought, to determine if he’s acting the way HaShem wants. We all stand before the king constantly, as the pack says “Shvisi HaShem l’negdi tamid”, and therefore our thoughts should be like a slave before a king whose constant thought process is focused on his actions. That’s what it means to be an eved; to think about your actions and enforce a change if it’s necessary.
This is the mitzvah of “Shoftim v’shotrim”, says the Sh’la Hakadosh. There are many times in life when we realize that we aren’t acting in an acceptable manner. However, the realization by itself is never enough. With just the realization, we become like the servant who realizes he isn’t performing the will of the king, yet refuses to change. That’s not called a real eved. To become a real eved HaShem, one needs to become a shoteir as well, and enforce the necessary change for the better.
There’s a pasuk we now say every day in “L’dovid” which I feel really encapsulates the message of Elul. The pasuk says “Lecha omar libi bakshu ponai es panecha HaShem avakeish”, “to you my heart has said seek My presence, Your presence, HaShem I seek.” On the surface, this pasuk seems cryptic. Who is Dovid Hamelech talking to when saying “to you my heart has said”? It seems as if he’s talking to HaShem, but then the continuation of the pasuk doesn’t seem to make any sense at all!?
Possibly anticipating this issue, Rashi explains the word “Lecha” as “On Your behalf”. In other words, Dovid Hamelech is telling us that on the behalf of HaShem, the heart says, “seek My presence”. We can glean from here a groundbreaking yesod in Avodas HaShem and the month of Elul. Deep down inside, each one of us has a heart which is on a mission from HaShem to enlighten us to change. To give us that desire, to seek out truth and meaning in life. It isn’t something which is external to us which needs to be acquired. It’s an inherent part of us deep down inside.
Being a shofeit on oneself does mean using the sechel. It does mean thinking about whether or not our actions align with the Ratzon HaShem. That seems like a daunting task. To assess all of our actions every day? How could a person have time for such a thing? We see from the pasuk in “L’Dovid” that sometimes using the sechel doesn’t mean actively assessing each and every action. Sometimes it just means listening to the heart, to the message our neshama is telling us. It’s a reality, deep down inside. Using the sechel sometimes means peeling away the layers of filth which separate us from the true connection with the “heart’s” message. For the heart is always deep down aligned with Ratzon HaShem. Deep down we always know and feel what’s right. Being a shofet on ourselves just means knowing how to listen.
This is the message of Elul. In Elul we try to enlighten ourselves to Teshuva and to return to HaShem. It’s a time of deep introspection. The pasuk is telling us where our introspection should lead. It should lead to us listening to ourselves. The heart says seek out HaShem. It tells us to do Ratzon HaShem. It’s just up to us to take the time to really listen
We spend an awful amount of time talking about self-actualization. Every kid who goes to school is taught from an early age that they can be the one to change the world. We tell them that if they follow the route they will become the next Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs. Even on a more attainable level, kids are given the sense that if they are to count as anything in society they really ought to be an Instagram or Twitter influencer. They just need to discover in themselves that convergence of ability and passion and then they will be ready to transform society.
In truth, this sentiment is not a bad thing at all. It is important for our kids to grow up believing in the possibility of making a difference. They can and should find their G-d given talents and utilize them in the Torah and secular world. It is a true blessing that we live in a society today that demands that we thrive and not just survive.
However, there is one part of this whole equation which is blatantly missing. In Judaism, the life-mission of a human being has two components. The mission is expressed in a famous verse in Tehillim:
סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב
“Avoid evil and do good”
That means, as important as it is for a person to find their unique abilities and share them with the world, it is equally important for a person to discover their vices and subdue them. Every person is born with gifts and challenges. What this pasuk describes is that before one even gets to working on what one is great at, one needs to work on what one is bad at. The self-actualization movement spends little, if any, time on the latter. It preaches about change, impact and influence without necessarily talking about becoming a better human being to those closest and dearest. A product of success from this movement could be a person who has huge financial and social impact on society but could remain their entire life a morally bankrupt individual.
To make this a little clearer, the Torah introduces Parshas Ki Teitze with the following words:
כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ
“When you will leave to war against your enemy.”
Sholom Noach Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, indicates that the battle the Torah is describing is not just a war against the armies of the enemy. The battle being described is also about the internal enemy: one’s inclination to follow one’s passions and instincts till the point of self-destruction – the Yetzar Harah. If one reads this section of Torah with this renewed perspective, the Torah actually offers specific guidance into the intricate internal struggle one has with one’s evil inclination.
One pointer the Torah offers is that the battle is the fact that it is against ‘your enemy.’ Every person has an aspect in their personality which is their greatest vice. It is their internal nemesis. It could be anger, arrogance, tardiness, carelessness or the many darker parts of the human character. The Torah is advising us is to identify that corner and spend one’s entire life overcoming it. When you enter the war of character development, make sure that it is with your specific enemy, not anyone else’s and not the easier parts of our character.
The irony is that a person may spend their entire life self-actualizing and sharing their abilities with the world to the degree that they may end up completely ignoring their internal work. As important as it is to self-actualize, it is equally, if not more, important to self-reckon and self-correct. That may be the very reason we were placed on this earth. Our soul might need that specific correction to achieve perfection.
As we begin our new year together, let’s remember the dual mission we have ahead of us. We have a phenomenal amount to share with the world and we should keep ratcheting that up every year. But we also have unique aspects of our personality which we need to reform and change by the end of our sojourn on earth. Let’s take this year ahead as a time to improve ourselves and improve the world around us.
Rabbi Ya’akov Trump serves as the Rabbi of the vibrant community of Young Israel of Lawrence Cedarhurst. It is his passion to share his passion for the Torah and its relevance in contemporary times. He is featured speaker on YUTorah.org, has his own Nach Yomi website, has a itunes podcast and recently released an App on both the ITunes and Google Play stores. Rabbi Trump has been involved in many community wide projects including being hub coordinator of the Shabbos Project in the Five Towns-Far Rockaway bringing hundreds and thousands together raising the bar of Shabbos and the Five Towns Drug Awareness panel. Rabbi Trump teaches Halacha at the Shulamith High School for girls. Rabbi Trump is co-chaired the 59th annual RCA Convention for hundreds of Rabbis across America. Rabbi Trump grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. After graduating high school, he spent several years in Kerem BeYavneh in Israel followed by Ner Yisrael, Baltimore. He holds a BA in Mathematics from Yeshiva University and has taken multiple Actuary exams. While completing Semicha at RIETS, he served as Rabbinic Intern in Kesher Israel DC, Young Israel of Jamaica Estates and the Beth Din of America. He spent two years as Rabbinic fellow of the YU Torah Mitzion Kollel of Chicago creating new programs and shiurim. He has been a scholar at many programs including the OU Convention, Sharmel Caterers Pesach program, Kosher Rustic and the OU West Convention. He and his wife, Malka, and children live in Lawrence.
Rabbi Sorotzkin runs the organization Lev L’Achim in Eretz Yisrael, an organization specializing in being mekarev (bringing closer to Judaism) those who don’t have a religious background. He received a strange phone call one day. “Hello, this is Menachem Dvir. Every month I have been donating ten dollars to Lev L’Achim. Now I would like to increase that to eleven dollars each month.” Rabbi Sorotzkin encouraged the man to call his office to handle the change. “Please, Rabbi Sorotzkin, I want you to handle it,” said Menachem. Sensing there was more to the story, Rabbi Sorotzkin said, “OK, tell me, what prompted you to increase your monthly donation?” Menachem explained, “I have a small income and I give what I can to Lev L’Achim. I really feel what you do is so important. A few months ago, my wife gave birth to a healthy baby. Now that things are calmer at home, I am able to come on time to my evening kollel. I just received my first stipend for coming on time and I’m giving maaser (a tithe) on it!!”
Rabbi Sorotzkin was taken aback. Here is a Jew who is making a very minimal income, yet he wants to make sure he is always giving the appropriate amount to charity based on his income. A few months later, Rabbi Sorotzkin was speaking with a wealthy donor and shared this moving story. The man had already written a check, but then re-thought his donation. “Rabbi, I’m so impressed by that individual’s attitude to charity that I’m increasing my own donation by $5,000!”
This same wealthy donor was visiting Eretz Yisrael and asked Rabbi Sorotzkin to allow him to see more of Lev L’Achim’s work, as well as meet some of the great Torah leaders. At the end of the trip he wrote another check…for $90,000!! In the end, Lev L’Achim received a total of $100,000, all inspired by the one-dollar monthly increase of Menachem. This one dollar became worth one hundred thousand! This story is written in Sefer Zera Shimshon [English Edition] by my cousin, Rabbi Nachman Seltzer.
I believe the foregoing story gives insight to a pasuk in Parshas Re’eh. Hashem instructs Bnei Yisrael to give a tenth of their produce to support the tribe of Levi. The Torah then repeats the directive “aseir te’aseir,” to give a tenth. The letters in aseir—tenth—can also be pronounced as osheir—wealth. The Gemara (Taanis 9a) explains that the Torah is instructing us to give maaser—a tenth—in order that you become ashir—wealthy.
Simply, Hashem is promising that those who take care of the needy with the money with which they are blessed will receive an additional monetary blessing! The wording of the Gemara seems to suggest a directive to give maaser in order to become wealthy. Having more monetary wealth than one needs is a blessing, but it’s not supposed to be a focus of life. Why then should we focus on becoming wealthy when giving maaser?
Referring to the earlier story, we can offer an explanation. The promise of wealth is referring not only to monetary wealth but also to spiritual wealth. The reward for the tzedakah we give is much greater than the amount donated. Any help the recipient receives monetarily as well as emotionally accrues to the giver as a reward. And when the donation encourages others to give as well, the original giver’s reward includes all the additional donated money. Menachem’s additional monthly dollar donation became worth the reward for a gift of $100,000, since it was a catalyst for that donation. In the same vein, the Torah is telling us to give maaser to become spiritually wealthy, because the ultimate reward is much greater than the initial monetary investment.
Rabbi Shimon Schwab gives another perspective. Pirkei Avos tells us, “Who is an ashir—(wealthy person)? Someone who is happy with what he has.” True wealth is a feeling inside that I have all that I need. That is a true blessing. Hashem promises that when you give maaser He will ensure that you have a feeling of contentment with all your possessions.
We live in an era with an abundance of luxuries and comforts. The amount of possessions we amass and continuously purchase is enormous. Yet, having more doesn’t necessarily make us happier. In fact, it can make us feel poorer, for the more we have the more we want. Wealth can be a great blessing, but a true feeling of wealth is when we feel we have what we need. That’s the true blessing Hashem promises to those who give maaser: if you give the amount you should, I will bless you with a true feeling of wealth. You will feel truly content with what you have.