By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The parshiyos of Seder Devorim which we currently lain contain various lessons, eitzos and chizuk that we can all use as we advance toward the Yomim Noraim.
This week’s parsha of Shoftim is no different; providing us with proper perspectives vital in preparing for the yemei hadin.
The Torah in this week’s parsha instructs Klal Yisroel to establish a proper judicial system. The pesukim also discuss the severity of a judge who accepts bribes and commands judges to always seek justice. Finally, the posuk states the obligation to pursue justice: “Tzedek tzedek tirdof lemaan tichyeh veyorashta es ha’aretz” (16:20).
Rashi comments on that posuk, citing the Sifri, who says that appointing proper judges creates a merit for the Jews to remain alive and settle in Eretz Yisroel.
The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (10a) states that any judge who properly adjudicates a case, even for one moment, is considered as having partnered with Hakadosh Boruch Hu in the creation of the world.
What is the importance of placing judges and policemen in the country, and what is so important about properly arbitrating cases that a dayan who does so is considered to be a partner of Hashem?
Why does the Torah use the double language of tzedek tzedek tirdof when saying it once would suffice?
Additionally, the Torah commands, “Midvar sheker tirchok – Distance yourself from lies.” Why is lying the only aveirah that the Torah demands we maintain a distinct remoteness from?
Honesty is the bedrock of our faith. Dishonesty undermines us personally and religiously, and it destroys the world around us. If we are honest with ourselves, then we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that we are something that we are not. If we are honest about our standing, then we will always seek improvement. If we are honest with what we have accomplished with our lives and what our potential is, then we will be motivated to do more. If we are honest about how good we have it, then we will appreciate Hashem’s chassodim and try to make ourselves worthy of more.
When we wake up in the morning, our first words, even before we wash away the impurity from our hands, are, “Modeh ani lefonecha,” a proclamation that we realize we have nothing – and can accomplish nothing – on our own. It’s the introduction to a new day, a way of expressing thanks that Hashem has once again renewed His creation for our benefit.
We step outside and contemplate the world around us. In a moment of honest reflection, we feel His kindness anew. We realize how ludicrous is the claim that the universe came into existence on its own, and that after a huge bang, so many beautiful flowers, of such luscious color and variety, came about. How silly it is to believe that so many beautiful, nourishing and delicious vegetables suddenly sprouted in an instant. How delusional it is to see animals of all sorts, creatures formed with exactly what they need to survive and function in this world, and believe that they came about on their own. And of course, how very shallow it is to view man, the pinnacle of creation, more sophisticated and refined than the most expensive computer, as having come into existence with no plan.
An honest reflection is what allows us to perceive and appreciate the facts as they are. And that’s why truth is chosamo shel Hakadosh Boruch Hu, the fundamental of Torah and Torah living. Being honest and seeing things without negius or distraction are imperative to living as a Jew. If we are honest, we behave and we don’t steal, lie or harm others. We fight for the truth even when it hurts, even when we think we will lose, and even when it is unpopular.
Being honest is the best way to connect with the Creator. That is the partnership that we merit. We become part of creation itself by upholding honesty.
We must bear this in mind during chodesh Elul, as we battle for our survival. A general who deceives himself about the strength and quality of his enemy, will lose the war. We must approach this month, a gift from Hashem, with humility and self-awareness. If we are serious about tackling the problems that face us, both communally and individually, we need to start with honesty.
In order to succeed in any campaign, you have to honestly assess the situation. You can’t fight with lies, and you can’t solve problems with false solutions. Likewise, personal growth starts with knowing yourself and understating what you are lacking. If you are dishonest with yourself, if you are not connected to Torah, and if you don’t study mussar, you will be overcome with gaavah, deluding yourself into thinking that you are smarter, better, and a whole lot more perfect than you really are.
The wisest of all men, Shlomo Hamelech, tells us (Mishlei 23:23), “Emes kenei – Acquire the truth.” The only way to achieve lasting success in life is to be honest. Ill begotten gains will not last. Fooling others will only get you so far before they catch on and see through you. Fooling yourself will leave you losing time and again, without understanding why. In order to maintain a proper culture and society, it is imperative for people to be honest with themselves and with each other. If the justice system becomes corrupt, society cannot exist for long.
When you find yourself in a large mall or airport and are lost, you seek out a map of the location so that you can find your destination. Invariably, on the map, there will appear a small arrow or star, next to which it says, “You are here.” This is done because it is very difficult to find your way to where you want to go if you don’t know where you are.
With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper as our destination, Elul is the time when we search our souls to find out where we are.
This understanding helps us comprehend one of the final preparations we make before tekias shofar.
During the moments prior to tekias shofar, when the heart is pounding with awe and emotion, we proclaim loudly and in unison, “Rosh devorcha emes – The beginning of your word, Hashem, is truth” (Tehillim 119:160). The Baal Haturim explains that the final letters of the first three words of the Torah, bereishis bara Elokim, spell emes. Truth is the underpinning of creation and the world.
Rav Mordechai Pogramanski was famed in the pre-war yeshiva world for his brilliance and tzidkus. He was an uncommon genius of historic proportion, beloved by all who met him and conversed with him in learning. As the Second World War began, he made his way along with many other yeshiva refugees to Vilna. One of the many talmidei chachomim with whom he spent hours engaged in deep discussion was the Brisker Rov. When asked to describe the Rov, the illuy summed him up by saying that “meeting him was like being face to face with the truth.” Indeed there is no better way to encapsulate the greatness of a Torah giant whose very fiber is imbued with Torah.
A good Jew is traditionally referred to as an “ehrliche Yid,” which essentially translates to mean a Jew who is honest. This is because in order to be a good Jew, you must be honest in all your dealings and in all your actions. One who hews to an honorable and scrupulous path cannot tolerate sheker and thus develops as an oveid Hashem. The intricate and complex set of rules given in the Torah invests us with a mandate to live lives of tzedek and emes.
The Chazon Ish wrote a letter to a rov who had visited him and left a walking stick behind in the Chazon Ish‘s room. “Please,” urged the Chazon Ish, “come retrieve the stick. It is not mine and it disturbs my peace.” Something so seemingly insignificant as a walking stick that was not his completely disoriented the Chazon Ish. It upset the perfect balance of his world, where the rules of the Torah were the only reality. Having someone else’s possession in his room was as unnerving as a kushya on Tosafos.
The Torah says that a person of deceit, who refuses to follow the ruling of the kohein and shofeit, must die (17:12), and when he does, “You will rid evil from Yisroel.” A dishonest person isn’t bound by the rules. He denies their validity and relevance to him, and he is thus capable of committing all sorts of evil. There is nothing to hold him back.
When the Torah permits the appointment of a king, it makes it contingent on the monarch keeping a Sefer Torah with him at all times. He must learn from it so that he won’t become haughty and consider himself greater and mightier than a regular Jew. The same rules that govern all of creation and each individual apply to him, and only with that awareness can his malchus succeed.
Torah is emes, and one who lives with the emes is cognizant of his own insignificance in the scheme of things. He realizes his faults and knows what he is lacking. He honestly assesses himself and constantly seeks to improve as he helps others grow. Such a person will not become a baal gaavah, even if he is a king.
One Chol Hamoed, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer asked his talmid, Rav Dovid Finkel, for a pen and paper. Rav Dovid was surprised that his rebbi would write on Chol Hamoed, until the aged gaon said to him, “It’s pikuach nefesh.”
Upon receiving the pen and paper, Rav Isser Zalman wrote down a few words and was quite satisfied. What did he write? A posuk in Mishlei (4:25): “Einecha lenoach yabitu ve’afapecha yayshiru negdecha – Let your eyes look straight ahead and your eyelids remain straight before you.” The admonition represents Shlomo Hamelech’s advice to a leader, rov or dayan to see all people as equal and not to dwell on other people’s failings, only your own.
Rav Isser Zalman explained to his talmid why it was pikuach nefesh for him to have the pen and paper. “Today,” he said, “many people will be coming here to visit. Some of them will be talmidei chachomim and some will be simple individuals. There will be enjoyable people and there will be some who can be irritating. I need to have this piece of paper ready in front of me to remind myself to look straight ahead and see my own flaws and failings, not theirs.”
To Rav Isser Zalman, with his finely honed sense of right and wrong, this was pikuach nefesh. The rules of the Torah necessitated writing on Chol Hamoed so that he would be an upright judge, capable and ready to receive other Jews properly, focused on the truth.
The lessons of this week’s parsha and their call for truth are the yesod of Elul, as we say goodbye to the care-free air of summer and embark on the path to the sheleimus and temimus demanded by emes.
A bochur once approached the Lakewood mashgiach, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel, for advice regarding his future. Rav Nosson told the talmid to come to the yeshiva for Elul and that they would then make the decision together.
“During Elul,” he explained, “everyone refocuses on who they are, taking the time to contemplate why they are here and their particular value and role in Hashem’s plan. During the rest of the year, we are easily distracted and not always honest about what we should be doing. Elul is a time of Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li, when we ponder our relationship with Hashem. Only after an honest assessment of who you are, can you make a decision about what you should do and what path you should take.”
Earlier this year, Reb Meyer Birnbaum, better known as Lieutenant Birnbaum, passed away. At his levaya in Yerushalayim, Rav Moshe Shapiro was maspid him in Hebrew. He kept repeating two words over and over: ‘Yehudi amiti … Yehudi amiti … Yehudi amiti…”
Rav Shapiro was expressing pain at the loss of a simple Jew who was ehrlich with every step he took. In his long life, Reb Meyer faced many problems and challenges. He lost his beloved brother to war, faced bankruptcy and divorce, and other problems that can conspire to destroy a person. What made him special was that where others would have seen themselves as victims and grown bitter from their many challenges, he remained humble, aware that Hashem has His cheshbonos and that there is a specific plan. The task of an ehrliche Yid, a Yehudi amiti, is to comprehend that and conduct himself accordingly.
Reb Meyer’s reaction to hard times was to repeat an expression he loved: “Don’t tell Hashem how big your problems are. Tell your problems how big Hashem is.”
That’s a Yehudi amiti.
Once again, Chodesh Elul is here. Our opportunity to refocus on why we are here and what we are meant to do is back. With it, is our chance to contemplate the rules that govern the universe, the Torah, which is a guidebook for our lives and the world. By studying it and immersing ourselves in its timeless truth, we can become people of truth, happiness and life.
We can ready ourselves to stand before the Judge of Truth, on the Day of Truth, as true Jews.