Parashat Shoftim

Our Lips as Gates of Justice
A D’var Torah for Parashat Shoftim
by Rabbi Irwin Huberman ’10


I’ve often wondered why the Torah devotes so much effort towards commanding the Jewish people to establish judges and officers within its communal structure.

Agreed, it is vital that within any just and free society, a legal system be established under which issues and conflicts are adjudicated in a fair and unbiased manner.

The foundation of justice is so important, that twice within the Torah, including this week’s Parashah, we are instructed – Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof – “Justice, Justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

Furthermore, the Torah insists that this precious commodity – “justice, justice” – mentioned twice — be administered fairly — regardless of the class, financial status and social standing of its subjects.

It is why perhaps why this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Judges) has assumed such a high priority within both Jewish scripture and culture. Our Sages have gone to great lengths to punctuate the importance of judges acting in wise and unbiased manner.

But when we think about it, this commandment is somewhat limited in reach. Within current American society, we understand that each of us, by exercising our vote, can influence the selection of judges at a local, state and national level.

However, it is unlikely that the Israelites during their forty-year journey to the Promised Land relied on such a complex selection process. Still, the commandment is often understood to be focused on the judiciary at a societal level.

But is there more?

This week’s Torah portion begins with the words, “You shall place judges and officers at all of your gates” (Deuteronomy 16:18).

There are two interestig words here: “You” and “gates.”

The word she’arekha (Gates) is generally interpreted as referring to communal gates.

Indeed, Jewish text refers on many occasions to judges and officers positioned at the gates of the city adjudicating matters of communal importance. But does the significance of “gates” stop there?

One of our greatest scholars, Rabbi Israel Meyer Kagan (1839-1933), better known as the Hafetz Haim, devoted a lifetime to the study of words, and the eradication of gossip.

Through dozens of books, articles and texts, the Hafetz Haim focused on controlling perhaps the most dangerous part of the human body – the tongue.

The Hafetz Haim often taught that a person’s lips serve as spiritual gates through which thoughts and inclinations can exit, and become “weaponized” – often hurting and damaging others.

These days it seems, gossip has become commonplace, and too often accepted or ignored. It has become within modern society a growth industry. We are flooded by television programs, podcasts and broadcasts which often mock leaders, entertainers, or every day citizens.

Vehicles such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are frequently used to rebuke, damage or attack others.

Therefore, perhaps it is time, as we review this week’s Torah portion, that we re-examine the implied understanding of “you” and “gates.”

Indeed, each of us has control over a series of gates – including our lips and thumbs – over which judicious care must be exercised.

The Talmud teaches that when gossip is uttered, three persons are damaged; the subject, the speaker and the listener.

How often do our personal gates permit hurtful words to pass through? How often are words, used to destroy rather than heal?

How often are sensitive hearts mortally wounded by words posted through the gates of social media?

Rabbi Mordecai Finley reflected upon the idea of “judges and officers” as he wrote in 2015: “The “judge” inside has to adjudicate whether this is gossip or a person sharing with you is crucial information. The “officer” then has to act on that judgment…. The judge knows when it is gossip, and the officer does something about it.”

It is therefore important, as we proceed through the month of Elul, a month of reflection prior to the High Holidays, that we look at this week’s Torah portion, not only as an instruction to establish a judicial system, but also as it relates to our personal practice of Tzedek – justice.

How much gossip are we allowing to exit our gates? And how much gossip are we permitting to taint us?

Indeed, the word “gates” can mean more than a physical location. The concept can also refer to our lips, our ears, our eyes, our facial expressions, and all other forms of communication as we interact with others.

That is where justice begins.

For when we understand that Tzedek begins at the gates of respectful interaction, and kind words – then this spirit of justice, can truly extend to all humanity.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR ’10) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism affiliated congregation in Glen Cove, NY.