שפטים ושטרים תתן לך בכל שעריך אשר ד' אלקיך נתן לך לשבטיך ושפטו את העם משפט צדק - דברים טז י

Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities-which G-d, your Lord, gives you- for your tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment

This portion that is always read on the first Shabbos of Elul, has engraved into its identity the month of אלול, Elul, in the first letters of the segment: לך לשבטיך ושפטו את, you- for your tribes; and they shall judge the...

The Holy Shelah sees in this injunction to appoint judges in our cities as a call for each one of us to honestly ‘judge’ ourselves personally as well, as indicated in the words תתן לך, gives you, which is written in the singular. The word for cities, שעריך, more literally translates as ‘gateways’, which the Shelah asserts refer to the ‘seven’ gateways on our head through which we process the world that surrounds us. The two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the one aperture, our mouths, are the seven portals that stimulate our nerve endings that brings us to cognition and thus to the choices in how to deal with that awareness effectively and healthily. This is the Avodah, the spiritual task, of Elul; seeking to prepare ourselves for the Day of Judgment, Rosh HaShana.

The ultimate goal, however, is not merely to be acquitted on Rosh HaShana, but to attain an improved and joyous relationship with our Father in Heaven, that we hope to celebrate in exquisite joy at the culmination of the Tishrei experience, during זמן שמחתנו, the time of our rejoicing, on the festival of Sukkos.

The saintly Bnei Yissaschar observes that the total hours in the course of Elul, 696; 29 days multiplied by its daily 24 hours, is equivalent to twice 'שמח', happy, (348 x 2), representing the double happiness of G-d’s delight in us and our joy in return. (בני יששכר מאמרי חודש אלול מאמר א)

The paragraph immediately preceding this portion is indeed a reference to the three pilgrimages the Jewish nation made yearly that concluded with the jubilation of the festival of Sukkos and its double charge to exult, as the verse there states: ושמחת בחגך... והיית אך שמח, You shall rejoice on your festival... and you will be completely joyous.

There is a more practical connection, however, between these two subjects beyond the perfection of character that brings one to rejoice in G-d.

The great 15th century scholar and kabbalist, Rabbi Avraham Saba, a victim of the  expulsion from Spain in 1492, writes in his remarkable work, Tzror HaMor, a book he wrote from memory as he had lost all his possessions together with much of his family, suggests that the juxtaposition of these two portions alludes to the fact that the שוטרים, the enforcing officers of the Judges mentioned in our verse, would ‘police’ the masses of people who came to celebrate the festivals. Out of fear the people might mingle inappropriately in the levity of the moment, these ‘officers’ would prevent the festivities from getting out of the proper borders of sanctity.

It would seem then that these judges and especially their officers played a significant role in preserving the unadulterated joy that is integral to these festivals.

Were these officers simply ‘tough cops’ or ‘modesty police’ who instilled fear among the celebrants and threatened those who breached the boundaries of propriety with consequences?

Or perhaps they were personages whose extraordinary character and stature would inspire piety naturally?

Who qualified to be a שוטר, a Jewish policeman? To which tribe did they belong?

The Talmud (יבמות פו:), citing a verse in Divrei Hayomim, reveals that initially these ‘policemen’ were selected exclusively from the tribe of Levi. Although the Talmud doesn’t delve into the reason for their greater qualification, we can imagine that it goes back to their long history starting from that first act of law enforcement that Levi undertook together with his brother Shimon to avenge the plunder of their sister Dinah at the hands of Shechem, where they decimated the entire male populace of his city. This profession found expression once again when the tribe of Levi courageously responded to the battle cry of Moshe rallying to intercede against those who worshipped the Golden Calf in punishing the sinners and quashing the rebellion.

Was it just their loyalty and zealousness in upholding the law that qualified them for this task, or might there be something more profound laying beneath the surface?

In stark contrast to their roles in law enforcement these members of the tribe of Levi were renowned for their exclusive function and ability to sing exquisitely and joyously in the Holy Temple during the services. The imagery of ‘toughened’ officers singing the sweet and soulful heavenly notes that elated the hearts of all who listened, seems incongruous at the very least.

Rabbi Yaakov Skili, the famed disciple of the Rashba, in his masterful collection of  lectures entitled Minchas Yehuda, reveals the answer as to why the tribe of Levi were deserving of being blessed with the talent to arouse joy with their song.(דרשה נו)

The children of Levi merited to delight and enjoy in their lifetime this special pleasure (of enchanting heavenly music) as a measure for measure reward, since they who protested in mourning and worry in order to fulfill the command of their creator, as it says, and all the Levites gathered around him... let every man kill his brother, every man his fellow... the one who said of his mother and father, “I have not favored him”..., G-d said, “by your life, that I will give you eternal happiness in your lives to counter your having  not considered your personal trouble and broken hearts...

Perhaps this was not merely a payback of ‘joy’ to replace the agony they endured slaying their very own family and friends, but rather a profound lesson in the formula for joy in life.

One who judges one’s every action in assessing its worthiness and lives a life of disciplined and purposeful reaction, never submitting to instinctive reflexes and emotions, is assured a life of happiness. When we follow the impulses of the crowds, or our own imagined expectations of pleasures that await us if only we obtained ‘that’ article of our dreams, we discover we are chasing illusory bliss. But if we stick to our beliefs not permitting ourselves to simply indulge, restraining that impulse by considering its objective value to our lives, we will find ourselves living lives of serenity and happy calm.

The Levites were mindful of their objectives, thoughtfully judging their every action and implementing extraordinary discipline and restraint, never allowing themselves to be ruled by convention or the path of least resistance.

We each long for ‘happiness’ in life, it is the elusive goal we all so pine for. Have you ever wondered that if this is a worthy goal then why we don’t seem to pray for it anywhere in the entire Shemoneh Esrei?

In fact we do. In the 11th blessing, השיבה שופטינו, we pray for the restoration of justice, pleading, Restore our judges as in earliest times and our counselors as at first; remove יגון ואנחה, sorrow and groan...

The first request echoes a verse in Yeshayah that tells of G-d’s promise ואשיבה שפטיך כבראשונה ויעציך כבתחילה (ישעיה א כו), And I will restore your judges as at the first, and thy counselors as at the beginning. The Talmud in fact states that this promise in the time of redemption will only be fulfilled at such time when the, שופטים ושוטרים רעים, the corrupt judges and officers, will be removed and replaced by worthy ones.(שבת קלט.)

This second appeal to remove ‘sorrow and grown, reflects a later verse in Yeshayah, the only place these two nouns appear together, where the prophet foresees a time when the ransomed of the Lord, shall return, and come with singing unto Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; ששון ושמחה ישיגו, they shall obtain gladness and joy, ונסו יגון ואנחה, and sorrow and groaning shall flee away.(שם לה י)

The antidote to sorrow is joy. The prescription for joy is to live a thoughtful and disciplined life.

The Levites were equipped to sing joyously precisely because they lived happy lives. They developed this talent when they withheld their instincts, submitting their will totally to the will of G-d, agonizing over their role but remaining loyal to the truths they understood so judiciously.

Whether it is the formal judges and officers who inspire us to a life of happiness, or our internal judges and officers, as the Shelah taught, who patrol our every urge and instinct, calling to us to be contemplative and wise in how we distill them, and in the spirit of the Levites, to exhibit supernal self-control in all facets of life, only with that will guarantee us a life of genuine happiness and fulfillment.

Let the month of Elul begin, days infused with joy, by rallying to the battle cry, מי לד' אלי, Whoever is for G-d, join me!, discovering in that merit the secret key to unlocking the storehouses of happiness that await all those who respond in kind.


צבי טייכמאן