psychological insights in this week’s Torah portion (from Kane Street Synagogue’s weekly flyer)

Posted on September 5, 2008

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The Torah Portion this week gives Mitzvot governing the social administration of Israel. Its opening verse enjoins: “Shoftim (judges) v’Shotrim (and officers) shall you appoint for yourself in all of your cities.” According to Rashi, “judges decide the law, and officers are those who govern the people after the command of the judges, who even strike…with rods and lashes, until one accepts the decisions of the judge”.

Chasidic interpreters note that while the commandment appears to be a communal one, the word l’Cha “for yourself” is singular. We need judges and officers not just for the public, but within each individual.

The S’fas Emas, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, at the end of the 19th Century, identified the judges as our “Chochma V’da’as” wisdom and knowledge. Sometimes these make judgments and we follow them. This occurs when we enjoy Yishuv Ha’adas, more or less “a settled mind”, a calm, reflective state. Often however, our intelligence cannot get our whole personality to follow through. Proper judgment is followed by improper behavior. Rationalizations and self-interest speak more loudly than our intelligence.

This week we began Elul, the month of introspection before Rosh Hashana. Who can act as our Shotrim, our officers, persuading us into proper behavior when the judge is ignored? In the words of Yehoshua Ben Prach’ya in the Ethics of the Fathers (1:6), “Make for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself trusted, fellow students, and give other people the benefit of the doubt” When you’re feeling defiant and self-righteous (e.g. scared), let your teachers, trusted friends, even well-intentioned, casual observers, in a little. They are free from our self interest, and may start to steer us back to our better selves.

–Rabbi Sam Weintraub

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