This parsha begins: “Shoftim ve’shotrim ti’tein le’cha be’chol she’areetcha asher HaShem Elo’kehcha no’sein le’cha …” (ArtScroll: “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities [literally, gates] which HaShem, your God gives you …”). The Sfas Emes tells us that his grandfather had his own way of reading this pasuk. The Chidushei HaRim would focus on the phrase ” … the gateways that HaShem, your God, is giving you …” He would then comment that the Torah here is telling us a basic — but often forgotten — fact of life. We should keep in mind that the gateways — she’arim — that permit access to HaShem are themselves a gift from Him. Like any gift, this access to HaShem should not be taken for granted.
Continuing, the Sfas Emes presents what he refers to as the pshat (the plain/simple meaning) of the pasuk. In that mode, he reads the pasuk as a command that we place judges and “enforcers” at all the points of access to our senses. Thus, we should monitor our eyes, so that we do not see what we should not see. Similarly, we should monitor our ears, so we do not hear what we should not hear (e.g., music from the jungle).
Thus far, I have been presenting the Sfas Emes of 5631. Four years later he elaborated on this theme, explaining that the “shoftim” (the “judges”) to which this pasuk refers are our “chochma veda’as” (wisdom and knowledge). He adds that sometimes our chochma veda’as suffice to induce us to do the right thing. But we must also conduct ourselves properly in cases “she’ein ha’seichel mas’kim” (in which our intelligence does not concur).
Living life intelligently — and doing the right thing — requires yishuv hada’as (calm reflection). But often we are not able to be calm and reflective. In such circumstances, our seichel does not do the job. On the contrary, our judgment becomes an unreliable compass for navigating life.
The Sfas Emes notes that such cases often occur. That is, many times (“harbei zemanim”) a person is not priviledged to be in a state of yishuv hada’as, and thus to reach proper judgments about proper behavior. In such cases, the Sfas Emes tells us, the “shoteir” (“enforcer”) — is needed to coerce us to do the right thing. In our context, what might fill the role of shoteir in cases where our sei’chel is not giving us accurate decisions? Two candidates come to mind. Peer pressure (from the right peers!); and firm adherence to policies that were decided in an atmosphere of yishuv hada’as.
Continuing with his ma’amar in 5631, the Sfas Emes closes the circle. Thus, he tells us that placing overseers on our senses can help us live life more reflectively. And living life with yishuv hada’as, we are better able to perceive the world as governed by HaShem rather than by immutable Nature. Finally, to the extent that we live our lives with prior reflection, the sha’ar of access to HaShem will be opened wider for us. Note : we are back to that key word and that key feature of life : namely , “gateway”. ( In reality, we are not “back ” to it ; for with the Sfas Emes’s singleminded focus, we never left it. )
The Sfas Emes concludes this discussion by citing a zemira ( song ) which the Arizal wrote for the Shabbos evening se’uda. The Sfas Emes quotes the zemira to enable us to see the link between : song (shira) and access (sha’ar).. We say in this zemira, “Aza’meir bish’va’chim lemei’al gav pisc’hin …” ( “I sing praises of HaShem, and thus may enter through the sha’ar to gain access to HaShem. )
In fact, singing praise of HaShem can remove the Hester behind which His Presence is often hidden. The Sfas Emes elaborates on the idea that song (zemira) can help us in our avoda (service), To do so, he calls up a secondary meaning of the Hebrew root ZMR — namely, “to cut away”. Working with that meaning of ZMR, the Sfas Emes explains the objective of the “pe’su’kei de’zimra” ( “the verses of song” that we recite before we begin the formal Shabbos Shacharis davening). By singing praise of HaShem, we can cut away the sitra achra — the power of evil — that constantly tries to interpose itself between HaShem and His people. Thus, the Sfas Emes can now read ” azameir bishevachim ” as “I will cut away with praise”. Sounds right.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.