The Time is Short and the Work Abundant
How does the law normally deal with a crime? When a person is apprehended for having stolen something, or for having committed an offense that must be addressed in court, the police or law enforcement officer arrests the suspect and puts him behind bars until he is brought to court. Next, the judge decides the case in light of his offense and the law. Hence for all this to happen, an officer must first act, and only then can a judge get involved.
When we look at this week’s parsha, however, we see something astonishing at the very outset: “Judges and officers shall you appoint for yourself in all your gates, which the L-RD your G-d gives to you” (Deuteronomy 16:18). This is difficult to understand, for according to what we have just said, the verse should have stated: “Officers and judges shall you appoint.” That is, the officers should have been mentioned first, and only then the judges.
The reason for this unusual order is that Scripture is not speaking of a material judgment here, but instead is expounding upon spiritual justice. This is particularly appropriate for the time in which we find ourselves, in the month of Elul, a time of mercy and the recitation of Selichot. People unfortunately tend to put things off until later, to procrastinate, just as the saying goes: “Why do things now when you can do them later?” However this is not the way of the Torah.
The harvest is over, the summer has past, and we have not yet been saved. Time passes and days go by, never to return again. We once again approach the days of judgment, a time when we shall stand before the throne of justice, before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. Everything hidden will then be revealed, including all the secrets that people keep. Hashem is the Judge, and He knows how to repay everyone according to his deeds and way of life. During such days we need extremely gifted advocates to plead our case. We must prepare first-rate defenders for ourselves, ones who know how to highlight our merits before Hashem, the Judge of all the earth. Yet how should we go about doing this? We must be, at this point, already progressing in Torah study and the performance of mitzvot, as well as working on ourselves. We must fix everything that is not yet right in our relationship with G-d, and especially in our relationships with others. It is in this way that we can approach the days of judgment in a state of spiritual cleanliness and purity. This is why we must act as judges with respect to our own selves, evaluating each action we take to know if it is good or not, to determine if it is acceptable to Hashem. Would we act in a given way before a king of flesh and blood? After being certain that what we are planning to do is good, we can then go ahead and actually do it.
The judge represents the “legislative branch” of authority, whereas the officer represents authority’s “executive branch.” That is, the officer puts the judge’s decisions into action. This is why the Torah cites them in that order: “Judges and officers shall you appoint.” First judge yourself and determine if what you plan to do is desirable and upright, and only then should you, like an officer, carry out your decision. You will then be placing yourself under your own authority. Under what circumstances should this occur? It should happen “in all your gates” – at each instant you should act as a judge over yourself – for each action, each idea, and each thought – and only then should you carry out what you have deemed proper. If we were to adopt the reverse order, we would eventually wash our hands of all culpability and say, “It wasn’t so bad, and anyhow what’s done is done.” In that case, what would become of our decisions? In addition, we must recall that it is in our relationship to our fellowman that we must put the most effort. On this the Sages have said that for sins between a man and his fellow, even Yom Kippur does not effect atonement until the offended party grants forgiveness (Yoma 85b). This is why the verse continues by saying, “Judges and officers shall you appoint for yourself in all your gates, which the L-RD your G-d gives to you, according to all your tribes.” In other words we must not appoint judges and officers only for what concerns us, but instead we must think of what matters for each tribe – for every Jew – and try to better our relationship with them. It is in this way that we will better our relationship with G-d.
We find a similar idea concerning Chanoch, who ascended to Heaven while still alive. The Sages said, “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 Talpiot). We need to understand what the Midrash means by this obscure remark. We know that we unify G-d’s Name when performing mitzvot, just as we say before accomplishing each mitzvah: “For the sake of the union of the Holy One, blessed be He, with His Shechinah.” Yet what does this have to do with working on shoes? Is that representative of any mitzvah?
Indeed it is. Nobody should think that it is only with mitzvot between man and G-d that we unify Hashem’s Name. This also occurs with mitzvot between man and his fellow. Even when performing these mitzvot, a person must think about not wronging his fellow. He must remind himself that the Holy One, blessed be He, is before him and sees everything he does, knowing whether he is performing a mitzvah to perfection or not.
Fixing shoes pertains to the domain of mitzvot between a man and his fellow. When a cobbler is in his shop and working for a client, he can do so with the utmost concentration. Alternatively, he can sin by using fewer stitches or less nails than he should, thinking that nobody can see what he is doing. In that case he would be sinning against his fellowman. With each stitch that Chanoch made as he worked on a shoe, he unified the Name of G-d. That is, he put the utmost concentration into his work, which is why he merited to purify himself in this world at a young age and ascended to Heaven while still alive. It is in this spirit that each of us must act during Elul, the month of mercy and the recitation of Selichot. We must place judges and officers over ourselves in all our gates, for each mitzvah that we perform, and in this way we will merit reaching Rosh Hashanah in a state of spiritual purity.