For Justice Belongs to G-d: The Importance of Teshuvah During the Month of Elul, Before the Days of Judgment
The verse that states, “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities” (Deuteronomy 16:18), shows us to what extent the Torah penetrates to the depths of a man’s thoughts, as well as the power of a man’s impulses. True, the Sages have said that the Torah is an antidote to the evil inclination (Kiddushin 30b), but we realize that Torah study alone is not enough to conquer it, and that we must also appoint judges and officers for ourselves to keep us from sinning. Without extreme vigilance, the evil inclination will be stronger than us, and we will end up with a situation in which “men will swallow one another alive” (Perkei Avoth 3:2). Judges and officers will make the fear of the authorities reign, and we will not harm one another.
Nevertheless, we are aware of the question that has already been asked several times before: Since it is the officer that leads a person before the judge (and therefore comes first), why does the Torah place the judge before the officer? In addition, the officer also protects the judge’s life. Hence as a result, the officer should be mentioned first.
Let us attempt to explain this point. We read Parsha Shoftim during the month of Elul, to which the commentators have applied the verse, Ani ledodi vedodi li (“I am My Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine” [Song of Songs 6:3]), whose initials form the word Elul (Shulchan Aruch). Actually, even the greatest Tzaddikim are in awe of the day of judgment, and everyone tremblingly prepares for Rosh Hashanah, the day when it is decided who will be abased and who will be elevated, who will live and who will die, who will be poor and who will be rich, and so on. Even though the Tzaddikim have not sinned, they still fear for their flock, who are not free of sin, and for themselves least they be carried away by the sins of the generation.
All this should encourage us to prepare with great vigor for the day of judgment, and to gather defenders who will plead our case before the Holy One, blessed be He. These defenders are none other than the Torah and mitzvot, and the better we prepare ourselves, the better things will be.
This is the meaning of “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities.” To prepare himself for the day of judgment (for on that day the Holy One, blessed be He, judges the whole earth), a person should make sure that accusers do not catch him in sin. Otherwise, the verdict will sway towards severity, and officers will then carry out the sentence. If a person has the misfortune of being declared guilty, the officers will bring him into prison. However if a person is declared innocent, they will accompany him with great honor even if at first they were not favorably inclined towards him. It goes the same for each of us: If a person increases his prayers and supplications, he increases the number of judges who are favorable to him, as well as the number of personally appointed officers who will bring him out with great honor. We therefore understand why the judge comes before the officer in the verse, for it is he who comes to execute the verdict pronounced by the Judge, the Holy One, blessed be He.
The person of whom we are speaking has such merit that all accusers transform themselves into angels of mercy, and his willful sins are turned into merits (Yoma 86b). This occurs, however, only on condition that he profoundly regrets his sins with a humbled and broken heart. Since these accusers will be transformed into angels of mercy, their fearsome form will become pleasant, and it is they who will accompany a man in peace to the end of Yom Kippur, as the Sages have said: “At the end of Yom Kippur, a voice is heard saying: ‘Go eat your bread … for G-d has already accepted your deeds’ ” (Yoma 87a, Tosaphot beginning at VeHa’amar).
This teaches us that when a person repents out of love, all his wicked deeds are transformed into acts of goodness, acts pleasing to G-d. During these days of Elul, he should therefore hope that all his deeds will become good, for it is the time of “My Beloved is mine.” The Holy One, blessed be He, is inclined to help whoever asks Him as the Judge of the entire world, this in order that a person not fall into the hand of accusers and be declared guilty on Rosh Hashanah. If a person asks to be judged by G-d, we should realize that when his willful sins are transformed into merits, the officers will accompany him when he comes to the judgment, and when he leaves they will accompany him toward life and peace. This is the meaning of “Judges and officers shall you appoint,” which indicates man’s choice in having the Creator judge him. This is why we also go and pray by the gravesites of Tzaddikim during the month of Elul, for we ask that G-d have pity on us and grant us a favorable judgment on the day of awe because of their merit. In relation to the magnitude and the depths of a person’s repentance, he may obtain a situation in which the officers who accuse him will be the ones who themselves are transformed into benevolent officers to protect him from all harm.
We may add that in general, a person fears what others might say about him outside his home, but he is almost never concerned about the fact that G-d sees him inside his home, where no one else sees him. He therefore behaves politely and gently outside so that no one speaks ill of him, since he realizes that others watch him. Inside however (where others are not watching), he does what he wants, and it seldom enters his mind that the Judge and Creator of the world sees him.
This is why the verse, “Judges and officers shall you appoint” begins with judges, for a person should realize that there is a Judge who observes him both outside and inside his home, and that He is much more important than others who only see him outside, for their lives are also in the hands of the Judge of the whole world. Even an armed officer fears an unarmed judge, for a judge is the main thing. We find a confirmation of this idea in the words of Rabbi Yochanan to his disciples: “May your fear of Heaven be as great as your fear of man.” They asked him, “Is that all?” and he replied, “That in itself would be marvelous! Know that when a man commits a sin, he tells himself, ‘No one should see me.’ ” This is what we have said: A person should realize that although he is seen outside, the Judge of the whole world sees him both outside and inside, and he should fear Him at least as much as he fears men.
This also applies when a person judges himself by doing some soul-searching, even concerning his conduct at home where nobody sees him, as it is written: “Consider … the gain [derived] from a sin against the loss [that will follow]” (Perkei Avoth 2:1). If a person behaves in this way, he will be able to judge himself, be his own officer, and distance himself from every tendency to sin. He will motivate himself to perform mitzvot, and Heaven will certainly help him.
We find a similar idea in the Midrash: “Chanoch was a cobbler, and whenever he worked on a shoe he would say, ‘Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever’ ” (Midrash Talpiyot). The question may be asked: As he was stitching, when did he unify G-d’s Name and His Shechinah, since that depends on mitzvot? What mitzvah was he performing?
We should all realize that when a person performs a mitzvah, he should do so with the correct intentions, because performing mitzvot relates to G-d’s honor. The same applies to a mitzvah between man and man (such as Tzeddakah or kindness), for he must do everything for the unity of the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Shechinah. Yet when a person sews shoes or repairs watches, he receives a salary from his employer, and in such a case there’s no reason to have such elevated thoughts. However Chanoch comes to teach us something new. In reality, a man’s thoughts at work are concentrated on the wages that he will receive from his employer. Hence it would seem that he could potentially become materialistic and be tempted to rush his work, even when he has many shoes to repair, in order to satisfy everyone. It can then happen that in his rush to complete his work and earn as much money as possible, he does not repair them correctly, in which case he risks stealing from his clients. This is why Chanoch, as he sewed each of his stitches, uttered a prayer so that he would perform this material work with the fear of G-d and without a trace of sin.
This is a primary element in the fear of G-d, namely to behave honestly with others, as it is written: “ ‘You shall love your fellow as yourself’ [Leviticus 19:18] is a great principle of the Torah, for one who has no fear of G-d will end up deceiving others” (Bereshith Rabba 24:8). In fact, almost nobody sees a person when he is in his shop working, and he could, for example, use less nails than required to fix a shoe, thereby acting like a thief. However if he acts with the fear of G-d even as he works, and he does his work with the goal of uniting the Holy One, blessed be He, to the Shechinah, then it is obvious that he will not deceive others.
Envisioning G-d before us in every situation, even in everyday matters, is a principle of capital importance in serving Him, as it is written: “I have set the L-RD before me always” (Psalms 16:8). How much more, then, should we envision G-d in holy matters, which should be performed with as much fervor? This is what we learn from Chanoch, who saw G-d – the Judge of the whole world – in even his material work. This led him to feel that if his work for his fellowman was imperfect, so too would his service of G-d be. This is why in each of his actions, he was a judge and officer for himself, and he was always (even when performing material acts) in a state of prayer. Everyone should learn from Chanoch to see G-d in all of his acts, for judgment belongs to G-d and He helps every person freely, particularly during the days of mercy and goodness that prepare for the days of judgment. By conducting ourselves in this way, we can become elevated and grow in the service of the Creator. We will therefore be inscribed on Rosh Hashanah and confirmed on Yom Kippur for a good year filled with blessings, good life, and peace.