Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Shof’ tim

I love studying with 12 and 13 year olds, as they prepare for Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Their minds are beginning to expand, and if you hook them into a topic they like, the stuff they come up with is amazing. I was speaking with one young man about heroes. He said that a hero was someone who did great things. I asked him if there were lots of heroes in the world, and he just looked at me. I asked him if he was a hero. He quizzically looked at me, again. I smiled, and asked if he had ever done anything really good. He smiled and started going on about how he helped at home, helped at school, took care of his little brother, and made good grades. I said, “So, are you a hero?” He looked at me, and without missing a beat, he said, “No. Heroes are special people.”

I am not sure where we lost the notion that each of us is a special person. Torah tells us that people of faith are a “Goy kadosh – a holy people.” We also read that people of faith are a “Mamlekhet kohanim – a kingdom of priests.” Who are people of faith? Everyone. As we are about to enter the land of Israel, Moses tells the people that the Covenant of Faith is made with all people standing there and all people who are not standing there. In short: everyone. We are all special. I explained this to the young man, and I asked him a $64,000 question (which means that if he gets it right he has my permission to ask anyone for $64,000), “Ok, you are special. That makes you a hero. What does being a hero mean?” He thought for a moment and replied, “I have to do heroic things?” I could see in his eyes that his list of “good deeds” took on a whole new light … and he was not thrilled with the new light. Anticipating his next thought, I offered, “Yes, that means that all the good things that you have done, you were supposed to have done them. Being good means doing the things you are supposed to do. Heroes are the people who make a life out of acting that way.” With a quick retort, he said, “Ok, I am good, but heroes are great.” “You are,” I said. “But heroes are famous!” “Not all famous people are heroes.”

This really is such a simple concept that gets so easily forgotten. We demean our own value while we aggrandize the celebrity. We equate fame with value and in doing so; set both us and others up for horrible failure. A famous person is not necessarily a good one, and there are great people who live behind other people’s shadows every day. The true measure of someone is how they behave, not whether or not they are famous for how they behave.

This week, Torah gives us a relatively veiled look at this truth. The portion begins, “You shall appoint judges and guardians for yourselves at your gates.” Most translations will gloss over the last word and render it as cities or settlements. The text does not say “Eerekha or y’shuvkha – your cities or your settlements.” Rather the term used in Torah is “sh’arekha – your gates.” The presumption of most translators is that since the judges sat at the city gates to hold court, the Torah must be alluding to the gates … of the city. A wealth of commentary maintains that Torah is not written by accident. Ambiguities exist either on purpose or a result of linguistics. The author/editor could have used a term other than gates, or completed the sentence, “the gates of your city.”

Our tradition makes clear that the role of the judge requires him/her not be unbiased and be of great moral and ethical character. Judges are special people, for folks entrust to them large problems for resolution. This week’s portion may tell us more about their qualifications. A Khasidic teaching tells us that the orifices of our body through which information enters and leaves are themselves gates of judgment. The eyes, ears, and nostrils and mouth take in and let be known a host of data through which we make decisions on how to judge the world. The impact of this teaching would make this Torah text an additional piece of the judges’ job description.

One writer argued that this week’s portion taught that a human body is the gate of judgment, and therefore not a place where they sit. As they interact with people, their own senses provide data through which they judge others. Since Judges are “gates of judgment” the gate of judgment travels with him/her throughout every aspect of living. One then has to live by the same ethical standard through which one practices his/her calling. A judge who is seen as being inconsistent in his/her ethical behavior off the bench cannot be trusted on the bench.

Many have extended this lesson to celebrities; reminding them that people look to them as role models. We are comfortable thinking of celebrities as exemplars, but I think Torah speaks to regular people, not just the stars in the community. I look up to my teachers and my students, my family and friends as role models. As I told the young man in my office, he is a special role model. As such, this is a relevant teaching for all of us. The gates of our bodies that transmit and take in information fill us and share from within us everything we feel about the world, and tells folks around us, what to think about us. Thus the command to establish gates for judgment is not an edict to the elders of the community, but an adjuration to the entire community. Moses did not take the elders aside and say, “Ok, guys this one is just for you.” No, he told everyone, “Appoint for yourselves – each of you – judges and guardians. Each of us is commanded to be a hero for each of us is special, and the good things we do, fulfill the mitzvah of goodness. In fact, even more than when we fail to act “good,” when we demean the value of our good acts … this is a greater blaspheme. We are blessed in order to bless.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Marc A. Kline