The Torah tells us in this week’s Parshah, And you shall come to Priests, Levites, and the Judge who will be in those days, [Deut 17:9] to seek guidance in legal matters. Rashi takes special note of the expression, in those days, and comments that even if he is not like the Judges who came before, we must listen to him. It’s easy to say we have no other judge or rabbi to whom to go, but the real answer is just a little bit deeper.
The older folk may remember the likes of the Chofetz Chaim or R’Moshe Avigdor Amiel and feel a disconnect with “today’s Rabbis,” because the wisdom these young rabbis possess doesn’t quite measure up to the greats. After all, if a younger rabbi cannot countermand a ruling from an elder rebbe, how much more so are the words of today’s rabbis less valuable! This is an incorrect logic and we need the legal guidance and ruling of today’s rabbis. Our rabbis are the judges of our generation and of our days, and we must accept them with the same respect due the rabbis of the previous eras. We know this because of the phrase, the Judge who will be in those days. The second phrase, in those days, was already discussed, but the first phrase, who will be, is in reference to the rabbi, for he must connect with the people of his generation. If the rabbi feels the people are beneath him, if he finds the youth to be a worthless collective of rabble rousers, if he cannot understand the problems facing the youth, he cannot possibly understand to pass a fair and just justice and he cannot be a Posek [a decider or a legal advisor]. To be a Dayan [judge], one must be who will be, as our verse states; he must be able to relate to his own generation, sympathize with their issues, and appreciate the difficulties facing our youth. This idea is further solidified in Pirkei Avos 2:5 [or at least one version of it], which states, Do not judge your fellow until you have put yourself in their place. This doesn’t mean that only the young can be rabbis; it means it’s the job of the rabbi to remain real and attached to those whom he or she serves. This is the only way to be an effective Posek [judge]. You cannot be a Dayan unless you are empathetic to those whom you serve. You cannot judge without a deep appreciation for your fellow. You cannot judge if your ego makes your blood boil because you don’t have the authority you think you deserve.
This mitzvah goes beyond our leaders to us. Since we are all natural judges – each and every one of us – how we judge and the conclusions we make in our own heads is a matter of great importance. Judging righteously and empathetically is not just for our rabbis; it speaks to all of us. The mitzvah – in a global sense – strives to control the harsh conclusions and pointed remarks that may never escape our lips or that should never be spoken. What remarks and feelings cross the threshold of our consciousness when we hear about the activities of our most hated politician? For example, whether one hates President Obama or President Bush, their choices and actions are [or were] not designed to harm the United States or its people, but it’s easy to place doubt on their actions and to assume the worst at every turn. How we act toward one another here – in this religious setting – is great practice for the ultimate goal: putting yourself in your fellow’s place when interacting with rude workmates, stupid or discourteous drivers, or absent-minded shopping cart pushers. Swearing and flying the bird may be the native tongue of the New Jersey Freeway Driver, but not if you’re a Posek. By putting yourself into their place, you can understand how a terrible day can take your normally kind self and put a sour twist on the day.
This brings to mind the words of a knowledgeable and famous rabbi: Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured against you. How can you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye?’ Look at the log in your own eye! You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. He, likewise, is reminding us to judge amiably, justly, and fairly.
Hashem is expecting something more from his rabbis [and from us] than mere judgment and punishment. We need to understand some of Hashem’s motivations behind the mitzvah of shoftim. When we are caught in error we are confronted with a choice. We can hide it under a web of deceit. We can deny it until we’re blue in the face. We can cast blame and turn the hot white lights onto someone else. We can get angry and point at other people’s sins to distract. All these are signs we are not ready for repentance and forgiveness [and we’re being a self-absorbed jerk]; we have proven before the Heavenly court we deserve judgment. If, however, we admit our error and submit ourselves to the judgment we deserve, we are given mercy instead. King David, when Nathan haNavi confronts him over the murder of Uriah, David admits it and says, “I have sinned before Hashem.” He was a man whose heart brought him to repentance and the harsh judgment of death was stayed. By administering just justice [Deut 16:20], the rabbi is performing the tasks for Hashem, but when he provides an opportunity for teshuva – and the opportunity is taken, the heart of Hashem smiles. In like manner, if we use our ability to put ourselves into another’s place, we too, do the work of Hashem by encouraging our brother and bringing him to teshuva.