“Judges and officers shall you place for yourself, in all of your gates which HaShem your G-d gives you…” [16:18]
Many commentators apply this verse not only to the congregation, but to the individual — note that it says that you shall place judges and officers “for yourself” in the singular, as is emphasized by the Toldos Yaakov Yosef. He says that each person is first obligated to judge and correct himself, before judging others.
The Sfas Emes also applies this verse to the individual, saying that we must act both as “judges” and as “officers.” A person must take “judges” for himself, meaning in his or her own mind, to think carefully about his or her actions and choose that which is correct and appropriate. And a person also needs “officers,” forcing a person to behave in accordance with those judgments.
These are not the same thing. When a person isn’t busy and involved in other things, that is the time for him to be thinking about the right way to behave, the right way to act, the right things to do. That is when a person must act as “judges,” passing judgment on his past actions and then deciding how he will behave in the future. But the Talmud [Nedarim 32b] tells us that “at the time that the Evil Inclination takes control, there is no one to remind you of the Good Inclination.” In the middle of a hectic day, when suddenly confronted with a situation, a person barely has time to think “is this the right thing to do?” At that point, a person needs “officers,” in the form of a built-in ability to control himself and actually follow the rules that he laid out for himself in moments of reflection. As the Sfas Emes says, we need both “judges” and “officers” to ensure that we turn towards good and away from evil in our day-to-day lives.
The Shnei Luchos HaBris quotes the Sefer Yetzirah, which says that there are seven gates into a person. A person has two ears, two eyes, two nostrils and a mouth. So we learn from this verse that a person has to watch everything which passes through the gates. A person needs to think about what he looks at, what he listens to, what he eats and what he says — judging in advance whether this is appropriate, and then acting as an officer to prevent the wrong sort of traffic from flowing through.
This verse lays out a path for us to follow. We must spend our time judging ourselves, rather than others — on the contrary, we must be extremely careful before allowing anything about other people to pass through our lips. With ourselves, on the other hand, we must be objective judges, deciding upon the correct path to follow — and then we must act as our own officers, to insure that we travel that road.
Dedicated l’zecher ul’ilui nishmas (in memory of, and for the benefit of the soul of) Mr. Ian Ostroff — Yehudah Yitzchock Aharon ben Simcha