Judges and enforcers shall you establish in all your gates that the Eternal your God gives you for your tribes, and you shall judge the people with just ruling. (Devarim 16:18)


Establishing legal systems with courts and law enforcement organizations is one of the Sheva mitzvot b’nei Noach (the Seven Noahide Laws). Having a means of ensuring that society is safe through the rule of law is considered a fundamental and universal need for human societies. This is a literal and halachic interpretation of the verse.


The Sfat Emet, a foundational text of the Ger Chassidim, written in the nineteenth century, interprets the verse very differently:


My father, the elder, my rabbi and teacher, may his memory be for a blessing, interpreted “Judges and enforcers, etc… that the Eternal Your God gives you….” That everyone should know that everything that inasmuch as a gate opens for one, it is an open gate of their hearts… Even the simple meaning of the verse is that one should be a judge and enforcer over every feeling that comes from the opening of will and desire that are in the heart. They are called a gate and an opening of the internal being of a person. These gates should be open to the Eternal alone. One should not spend too much time in nature except to settle and center one’s thoughts, as our consciousness comes only from God.


The plain meaning of the verse is that the nascent Israelite nation should establish courts and police systems when they settle the land. The halachic interpretation extends this to non-Jewish peoples. The Sfat Emet says that this is a mandate to direct our emotions toward an exclusive desire to praise and serve God. The pshat (plain meaning) of the verse is to regulate society. The Chassidic interpretation is that we should regulate our inner lives, and channel every impulse toward serving God. 


As we have seen throughout history, and especially during this moment of history in which we live now, it is not enough that legal systems and enforcement systems exist. There must be a critical mass among us who cultivate self-awareness and practice emotional self-regulation. Just laws and procedures may be on the books. How well they are put into practice depends on the moral strength and maturity of those charged with the roles of legislator, lawyer, judge, police officer, etc. The relative safety of our society also depends on the moral strength of the average citizen. The more moral and more mature the average person is in our society, the less our systems of enforcement are needed.


But Judaism, especially in its diaspora form, is a religion, not a system of government. The role of Torah is to build our sense of what is moral, what is right, how to treat the world and those living in it as sacred. Judaism as a system of spiritual cultivation demands that we cultivate self-awareness, and practice the discipline of regulating our own way of seeing the world, and directing our desires toward goals that highlight holiness. 


The one practical aspect of the Sfat Emet’s teachings on emotional regulation is that it tells us to direct our impulses toward serving God, not to squelch or ignore them. Between the extremes of acting blindly and wildly on our impulses and feelings on the one hand and repressing our emotions on the other is the habit of acknowledging and observing our feelings and impulses, seeking to understand them, and directing their momentum toward higher purpose. As we begin the month of Elul, let us take this month to reflect more deeply on our own motivations and feelings, and search for the highest expression of our desires.


Shabbat shalom!

Comments are closed.


Visit the
Shaarey Tphiloh Facebook Page

ST Facebook image link

Upcoming Events