Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Walk article-Shoftom



Rabbi David Walk

Since, at least, 1957 police officers have had a bad rep.  In that classic musical West Side Story, the 'punks' of both Sharks and Jets varieties, evince our sympathy over the harried, ineffective and bigoted Officer Krupke.   In the 60's, I'm embarrassed to remember, we called them pigs.  And in the 70's Burt Reynolds was so successful making fun of the 'smokeys' that he made three successful versions of his antics.  Our era has left the area of comedy, because in the past few years it seems that we've had dueling atrocities.  Rogue cops shoot unarmed suspects and then vigilantes ambush innocent police.  It's a terrible situation!  The vast majority of police are hard-working and honest.  Moreover our society would become a jungle without their efforts to protect us.  My father OBM was a truck driver and encountered police all the time.  These interactions were always pleasant.  Because of my father's example and my own pleasant experiences with Officer Cy, the crossing guard of my youth, I always say hello to passing police.  But in this week's Torah reading police get their proper respect.

Our parsha begins with the words, 'You shall set up judges and law enforcement officers for yourself in all your (city) gates that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgments (Deuteronomy 16:8).  The importance of police to the judicial system is emphasized by Rebbe Elazar ben Shamua who said (in the Pesikta) that if there are police then you must have judges, if there are no police, there can be no judges.  The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (Reb Chaim Attar, 1690-1750) explains that Reb Elazar means that there is actually no mitzva to appoint judges without police because judges require the police to enforce their decisions.  Police are the sine qua non of an orderly society, and even the Noachide Laws require an effective legal system.  However, the Ohr Hachaim points out that, theoretically at least, there are some judges who are so respected by the community that they are obeyed even without a police force.  Oh, to live in such a community!  These special individuals are referred to as judges who enforce.

It's been pointed out by a number of commentaries that when you have both good judges and effective police the government is called righteous and just (mishpat v'tzdaka).  This idea was derived from King David who was said to have such a system.  After we're told that he ran such a good government, it records that his nephew, Yoav ben Zru'ya, was the commander of the army.  In other words, we need great leaders, but they need an effective constabulary to back them up (II Samuel 8:15-16).

The entire fabric of society, therefore, is dependent on an effective law enforcement apparatus.  There are many commentaries who take this idea and construct a great metaphor.  The verse demands that we appoint court officers and set them at our gates.  This made a lot of sense because in the ancient world the gates of walled cities was where the city interfaced with the rest of the world.  That's where the markets and courts were.  The city folk met strangers without these outsiders actually entering the city defenses.  By the time most of our great commentaries were writing (about 1100-1750 for the Mikraot Gedolot group), Jews didn't control any cities or have any gates.  So, the gates in verse 8 must refer to entry ways into something else.  Why not the body?  We must guard our eyes and ears from the many attempts to breach our defenses with messages we reject.  We become the guardians of our bodies.  It's our senses which must be protected.  Clever, eh?

The Sfat Emet explains the roles of these officers very cogently, and his interpretation, although given in the context of the metaphor, works equally well for actual gates of stone, steel and timber.  Judges, he avers, are the considered conclusions drawn from one's accumulated knowledge and will.  While the police officers manifest the correction or improvement (tikun) of one's actions.  These 'judges' and 'police' protect us from spiritually harmful behavior.  This assignment is an arduous task.  It's not easy to supervise ourselves. However, as I found on one of my favorite websites, Psychologytoday.com, 'Self-control separates us from our ancient ancestors and the rest of the animal kingdom, thanks to our large prefrontal cortex.'  I don't know what a prefrontal cortex is, but it's clear to me that our ability to govern our behavior is a hallmark of our humanity. 

The Sfat Emet goes on to explain that this judge and cop metaphor doesn't only apply to preventing us from reprehensible behavior. It also applies to mitzvah performance.  The second Gerer Rebbe informs us that we must accept the intellectual premise of our halacha (Jewish law) system before we can effectively actually do the mitzvoth.  My internal 'judge' accepts the yoke of heaven before my constabulary accepts the yoke of mitzvoth.  There must be an acceptance of the philosophy of the Torah before I can be a true ben/bat Torah.  Often we think that the heavy lifting is being done by actually carrying out the assignments dictated by the 613 mitzvoth.  The Rebbe is telling us that the work of the cop is only meaningful when the judge has cogently presented the Torah case for mitzvah performance.  That's not always an easy task, but without it our actions can be meaningless, or worse hypocritical.

Our police have an often thankless role in society.  They are often denigrated and even physical attacked.  However, they can only do their jobs effectively if our system of laws is presented clearly and reasonably.  Often cops perform poorly because they feel unsupported by the system.  That can't be allowed to happen.  And we have to think similarly in our own mitzvah performance.  We must think through our commitment to the Torah way of life, before doing the mitzvah actions.  The alternative is that we become insincere puppets.  The judges and police must work together in both real life and in our marvelous metaphor.          


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