My father once taught me that life is like walking a razor’s edge; we should approach each moral choice as if the world is balanced perfectly between good and evil. Any action that we take at any given moment could tip the scale, for better or worse, and irreversibly affect ourselves and everyone else on earth.

Illusion of the Island

Our society today has trained us to think differently. It’s all about us, we are told. I am the one who matters, and whatever I decide to do based on how I feel is correct and justified.

“You do you, as long as you don’t hurt anyone” has become the First Commandment of our contemporary Western culture.

The problem with this philosophy is that it is self-centered.

Torah Judaism teaches us to think in a different way: How can we live a moral life that is self-centered, yet other-centered at the same time? How can my own choices benefit myself AND others? 

In other words, “You do you” falls short.

It doesn’t take into account the little brother or sister who may be watching, or listening from afar, when you are doing your thang, but you don’t even notice they’re around. And your sibling is forming his or her future decisions based on your example.

Or let’s say no one is watching. Even then, a choice can have unintended consequences that are irreversible. Like – how bad is texting while driving, actually? We all get away with it…most of the time. Until that one time when you glance down at your phone to answer a friend’s text just as a pedestrian dashes in front of your car, and that single, split second choice changes everyone’s lives forever.

We are all interconnected. We are not islands unto ourselves. When I choose to act or to refrain from acting, I affect those around me in ways I may never fully comprehend. 

Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

The upcoming sedra (weekly Torah portion) is Shoftim. Judges. 

The first three psukim (verses) are set apart from the rest through the use of setumot {ס}, closed paragraph breaks, in the Torah scroll. These three verses read like a chapter unto themselves, as indeed they are, if we go by these natural breaks (rather than the artificial chapter-and-verse numbering system):

{ס}

 שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק

לֹא-תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט, לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים; וְלֹא-תִקַּח שֹׁחַד–כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

{ס}

“Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourself in all your cities that Hashem, your G!d, gives to you — according to your tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgement.

You shall not pervert judgement, you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not accept a bribe, for the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and make just words crooked.

Justice, Justice shall you pursue, so that you will live, and possess the land that Hashem, your G!d gives you.” (Deut. 16:18-20)

I love when the Torah talks about judges. I always find it refreshing to read and be reminded of the ideal: What the world should be, what it could be, if only those in positions of power were above being bought by special interests. If only our judges did not favor the wealthy or the poor in a court of law based on their respective stations in life, but rather searched to the depths of the matter to seek truth and pass down righteousness with every sentence.

Inter-Generational Sanhedrim

Ancient Israel was ruled by the Supreme Court, called the Sanhedrin.

What is less known is that Israel had not one, but three Supreme Courts, called Sanhedrim. According to our tradition, the Jewish courts of old sat in three places: on the Temple Mount, in the Courtyard of the Temple, and in the Chamber of Hewn Stone. And what I discovered to my delight, while researching for this piece, is that these courts included trainees. 

Tel Hazor Gates
Gate to an ancient Israelite city, Tel Hazor. The gates were gathering places, not merely doorways. Notice how there are rooms off to each side of the main pathway? These were chambers of judgement, like city courts. Image Source: Bible Walks

The Peirush HaRokeach states that there were three rows of 23 students who sat before each 23 member Supreme Court. And here’s the kicker: When necessary, under certain specific conditions, individuals or pairs of these students would be asked to join the panel of justices.

Could you imagine the uproar if an intern, or first year law student, wrote an opinion in a crucial decision of the American Supreme Court? Yet that is how our Israeli courts functioned 2,500 years ago. 

Why include trainees? Why not leave the Supreme Court decisions to the experts?

Because the Judges of ancient Israel were not selected by the Israelite king based on his own whims, political allies, etc. The major criteria for judgeship was knowledge of all facets of Torah law, and importantly, the judges were the most qualified teachers in the nation of Israel. 

The reason there were always students present in the Sanhedrin is because the goal of the court was not merely to hear cases and pass down judgement.

The Judges of the Sanhedrim were running an active classroom where every single decision they made was scrutinized by dozens of students, whom, they knew, would one day take their places. 

Every decision that each judge effected must have been made doubly cautiously: not only did their ruling have to be in line with past precedent and the Torah value system, their ruling had to hold true with the highest moral reasoning of which they were capable, because the children (their students) were watching…and learning.

Surrounding Crownlets 

The Baal HaTurim enlightens us on the very first word of this week’s Torah portion: Shoftim. According to tradition, there are tagin (crownlets) above and below the letter פ Pei at the center of the word Shoftim. 

 

Pei of Judgement, Crowned above and below
Second line from the bottom, second word from the right. I am still seeking the Pei which the Baal HaTurim saw, but here is what I believe he is referring to, on the same Hebrew root for “judge” and “justice”, but a different pasuk. Czech Torah Scroll, 1790; survivor of the Holocaust. Photo by the author.

What do these crownlets above and below this letter teach us?

As the Baal HaTurim (R. Yaacov ben Asher, c.1269-1343) writes, “This indicates that a judge should feel as if a sword were hanging above him, and Gehinnom were open beneath him.” 

Pretty intense. A sword above and hellfire below. What on earth is Rabbi Yaacov ben Asher talking about?

Of Sword and Flame

As any human alive knows, there are always factors that influence us in every decision we make. There are inclinations for good and strong inclinations toward evil that seek to seduce us in a different course of action.

I interpret both images in the Baal HaTurim’s metaphor to reflect different extremes of human moral failure.

The Sword is symbolic of Eden. It recalls what happens when humans fail themselves. After Adam and Chava failed to uphold the single commandment that G!d had given them – not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, whatever that meant – and more seriously, failed to take responsibility for their actions, they were exiled from the garden. A revolving, flaming sword appeared at the entrance to block their path back to paradise.

We as Jews do not believe that the “Original Sin” affects us or taints us, but we do believe that this original transgression does continue to impact us. The dire consequence of our forebears’ moral failure, our tradition teaches, was that death was introduced into the world.

Gehinnom, on the other hand, is symbolic of the valley of Gehenna. It recalls what happens when humans fail others.

Gehenna is a real place in Israel: it is the name of the valley to the south and south-west of Jerusalem. It’s modern name is “Wadi al-Rababah”.

The valley was notorious for the worship of Moloch carried on there (see Jer. ii. 23). The worship of the idol Moloch was one of child sacrifice where parents hurled their children into the god’s flames. The valley was de facto a burial place for children. For this reason the valley was deemed to be accursed, and “Gehenna” therefore soon became synonymous with a place of punishment, and later figurative for “hell.”

valley of Gehenna
Valley of Gehenna, below Jerusalem, Israel.

Certain transgressions in our tradition are said to lead a person to Gehenna, including unchastity, adultery, idolatry, pride, mockery, hypocrisy, and anger. Also, Gehenna is said to await one who indulges in unseemly speech, who turns away from Torah, and get this: Gehenna awaits one who instructs an unworthy pupil.

On the other hand, there are merits that preserve man from going South of Jerusalem: philanthropy, fasting, visiting the sick, reading the Shema and Hallel, and eating the three meals on Shabbat.

I don’t pretend to understand all this, but I do think I’m on to something. I’ve never quite gotten a straight answer in my life from any Rabbi or teacher about what happens after death, but I think we can all agree that sometimes, we can experience heaven or hell on earth. And those experiences are direct results of the actions of others.

As I see it, Gehinnom is the inferno born of the deepest form of human moral failure.

In times gone by, it was the valley Gehenna where human beings sacrificed their own children to cruel, consuming gods of flame. In our own age, Gehenna is the crematoria of the Shoah, where cruel Nazis sacrificed the children of others to the flames.

And there are still Holocaust survivors who bear witness to these atrocities.

It is easy to say that those who participated in killing their own children in the valley below Jerusalem were somehow barbaric and less than human. It is easy to say that the Nazis had no heart, no soul, and were subhuman monsters. But what is challenging, and the only course of action, I believe, is to accept that these murderers, too, were human. This is what Elie Wiesel z”l taught me: The Nazis were all human beings, just like you and I. And that means that free will can destroy worlds when humans morally fail themselves and others.

But where there is potential for great destruction, there is also potential for generation.

Flames that are out of control can consume and destroy everything in their path, yet when tamed, they bring light and warmth to humankind. Every culture in the world, as far as I know, since Homo Sapiens Sapiens have existed, built their shelters and their family lives around a fire pit. Today, our luxuries have shifted our priorities, and our homes have no central point, except maybe the dining room table. Or the TV.

But when you go camping and sit around that blazing campfire with friends and family, is there anything quite like that deeply peaceful feeling brought on by the light, warmth, food, laughter, love, and togetherness of that fire?

Shofars and Shoftim

We enjoy living in the illusion that our choices are our own; That they affect only ourselves. “If I fail, I fail alone”, we think in our hearts. But this is self delusion. 

We mustn’t forget how interconnected we all are. We must not willfully ignore how powerful an impact my choice has on you, and your choices have on me. 

The guideline set by this extraordinary letter Pei wreathed in crowns, the incredible lesson it teaches, is not just for judges. Rather, this principle holds for us all: when you make a choice, remember what happens should you fail yourself, and should you fail others.

Remember the sword of Eden: sometimes, once you cross a certain threshold of moral failure you can never return. You can repent, never fear–but the damage is done, and you have irreversibly affected yourself and the generations who come after you. Remember the consuming flame of Gehenna: if you should morally fail others, the consequences could be dire. 

Last Shabbat we entered into the sphere of time marked Elul. Jewish custom is to begin blowing Shofar every single day from Elul until Rosh Hashanah, except for on Shabbat.

shofar-child-rosh-hashana-holiday-
You got this, boychik.

The Shofar is a ram’s horn that is pregnant with meaning in our tradition.

It is the breath of life, our very souls, which sound the call on this horn. The Shofar reminds us, and G!d, of Avraham’s willingness to, like those in Gehenna, sacrifice his own son to the flames. But then, Abe was told by the angel of G!d NOT to harm a single hair on Isaac’s head. Ours is not a G!d of cruelty. Ours is a G!d who rejects child sacrifice.

The Shofar is a call against war, against the evil inclination of humankind to hurt those around them, a call against inflicting pain on children – be they ours or be they our neighbor’s. 

Elie Wiesel z”l taught me that she shofar must be bent, because it is imbued with humility. The shofar is bent like our crowned letter Pei is bent in humility.

Pei is the letter at the heart of the word Shofet. Pei represents the mouth: Speech. The Pei is therefore both the heart and the power of the judge. 

That which the judge speaks into being, the judgement that he or she brings down in a court of law, can create or destroy worlds. So each judge must remember to be humble, and must remember the Sword and The Valley of Flames.

King of Judgement

Every day, three times a day, Jews pray, “Restore our judges as in former times, and our counsellors as of yore; remove from us sorrow and sighing, and reign over us, You alone, O G!d, with kindness and compassion, with righteousness and justice. Blessed are You G!d, King who loves righteousness and justice.” 

During the Ten Days of Penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we substitute the last phrase with: Blessed are You…the King of Judgment.

As we judge others, G!d judges us. As we choose to treat others, G!d treats us similarly.

And together as one, we pray for the return of Justice, Justice to the world of men.

A Choosing People

To be Jewish is not a one-time choice; we choose for ourselves every day. How did Israel Zangwill put it? We are not the Chosen people, but the Choosing people.
– Elie Wiesel, Five Biblical Portraits, p. 28

We make hundreds of choices every day. As we continue to ascend from the burning valley of Tisha B’Av towards the holy heights of Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of this Paradisiacal world of ours, the soulful call of the Shofar pierces the silence.

It is a call to humility. It is a call to humanity. The bent Shofar is a call to all Shofets to straighten out our actions and walk in line with our highest moral selves.

You are the judge. Your court is in session. Your students are watching.

Open your eyes and see the consequences of your actions– before you act. Look and see how your behavior will affect yourself and your fellow human beings — before you decide which pathway to follow. Remember the Sword and the Flame.

Choose wisely. 

 


Selected Sources

Masorah:

Baal HaTurim Chumash, ed. Avie Gold, 2007, pp. 2008-9.

Wiesel, Elie. Five Biblical Portraits. University of Notre Dame Press. 1981, p. 28.

Hebrew Torah Text & Translation: https://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0516.htm

History: 

Jewish Encyclopedia, GE-HINNOM, or GE BEN-(BENE-)HINNOM: by Emil. G. Hirsch, Frants Buhl. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6559-ge-hinnom

Jewish Encyclopedia, GEHENNA (Hebr. ; Greek, Γέεννα): by Kaufmann KohlerLudwig Blau. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6558-gehenna