Thursday, 8 September, 2016 - 3:00 pm


Robert went to his lawyer and said, "I want to make a will but I don't know exactly how to go about it." The lawyer smiled at Robert and replied, "Not a problem, leave it all to me."

Robert looked upset and replied, "I knew you were going to take a big portion, but I would like to leave a little to my family too!"

This week's Torah portion, Shoftim, seems very straightforward. Upon deeper reflection, however, we see an important message.

And you shall come to… the judge who will be in those day S, and you shall inquire, and they will tell you the words of judgment and you shall do all they instruct you.

There is an obvious anomaly in this verse. The words “who will be in those days” are superfluous and strange. Obviously I will come to the judge who lives during my time. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t see a judge who lived a century or millennia ago or who might live in 1,000 years from now. What is the meaning of this?

The Talmud asks and answers the above question: By adding these unnecessary words, the Torah is addressing a mind-set that is ingrained in our psyches: The "good-old-days" syndrome.

At one time or another, everybody mentions the “Good Old Days.” It seems that our past is such a great place to have been, compared to the present or future. Even people lived through rough times in their youths, like the Great Recession of the 1930’s and World War II, still remember the past with affection.

Was the past really that good, or is it a psychological illusion?

Most of us know that the profound perceptual distortion created by hindsight bias can make almost anyone nostalgic for the good old days. It may be because it is irretrievable—the “old days” capture a past we can never go back to; or perhaps because our past is certain (unlike the future which is fraught with uncertainty), and that appeals to us psychologically.

We all hear how processed food is killing us. What happened to the good old days when food was unprocessed, when a roast was just a roast, and a loaf of bread just had flour and yeast and natural ingredients? But let us not forget the life-span that has tripled in our own age, and the miracle of modern medicine which has given people decades more to live. Some things about our diet and living conditions are incredibly positive and blessed.

Of course, some things were truly better in the past.

The “good old days” mantra is applied most when it comes to leadership. Every Jew will tell you: We used to have real leaders; once upon a time I had someone to consult with. We used to have great rabbis! Great sages! Great people of piety, wisdom and discernment. Today? Nobody left. They are either fools, ignorant, radical, impractical, or corrupt!

Some of this is nonsense. Most tales of corruption and stupidity in the Jewish world today have always been, just with less transparency. As Yogi Berra said, “It's deja-vu, all over again.”

In this week's portion, the Torah is alluding to something far deeper. Rashi explains: “Although this judge may not be of the same stature as other judges who preceded him, you must listen to him, for you have only the judge who lives in your time.”

The Torah is teaching that G-d placed you in this generation, and He has given you the ability to find a person or people who can guide you. You must seek out the “judges who will be living in those days,” in your own days. It is often your ego and fear that do not allow you to look up to or take criticism from others. Your insecurity or arrogance do not allow you to be accountable to anyone in this world. You are fooling yourself, says the Torah.

John Quincy Adams said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”

Yehuda Avner, who died in March of 2015, served as ambassador and adviser to Israeli prime ministers. Working alongside Menachem Begin and Golda Meir, the observant Avner was intimately involved in Israel’s statecraft for three decades, taking part in policy meetings and sitting in on talks with heads of state.

Ambassador Avner shared one fascinating and telling recollection from his illustrious career.

“I recall an occasion in 1975 when US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was engaged in shuttle diplomacy, negotiating with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in an attempt to bring about an interim agreement in Sinai.

“The negotiations broke because Rabin was not satisfied with proposals which impinged on Israel’s security. Kissinger went off in a huff, readying to place the failure of his mission on Israel.

“This showdown occurred just before Shabbat, and Rabin asked me to immediately prepare our case for worldwide broadcast before Kissinger had a chance to brief the pressmen accompanying him on his flight back to Washington. A battle for public opinion was on, not least to win over Congress and the American public at large to accept our version of things, and I was the only one on the premier’s staff who was not only familiar with all the facts but also had the language competence to promptly make our case.

“But I told Rabin that Shabbat was upon us, and what he was asking me to do was not a matter of vital policy but of hasbarah (public diplomacy or advocacy), and for that I was not willing to violate Shabbat.

“Well do I remember the look of contempt on his face as I left.

“The next day, Shabbat afternoon, in Jerusalem, I happened upon Rabbi Shlomo Z. Auerbach. He was one of the great Rabbis of the past half-century. He asked me what was new. I told him what had happened with my refusal to Rabin to write on Shabbat.

“He said to me, ‘Are you sure you had all the information to make the right decision?’ Meaning, are you sure you were well informed of the consequences of Israel not responding, which may warrant the violation of Shabbos?

“I immediately started to walk back to the prime minister’s office. When I got there it was already after Shabbat. Rabin was in the midst of an emergency Cabinet session, and as I walked in, he spat at me, “Now you come? It’s too late,” and he showed me the briefing that Kissinger had given the journalists accompanying him on his flight back to Washington, in which he placed all the blame for the crisis on Israel’s shoulders.

“This had the most serious consequences. President Gerald Ford declared a reassessment of the whole Israeli-US relationship, beginning with a partial arms embargo."

Avner was trying to be a good Jew, but the greatest Rabbi in Israel at the time told him he was doing the wrong thing. When it comes to issues of Jewish security you must violate Shabbat!

This is a great lesson for us. The Mishnah says, “Appoint for yourself a Rav, a mentor, a spiritual guide.” Each of us needs a Rav, an instructor or confidant, someone we consult when there's a question, and someone we are accountable to about our routines, behaviors and patterns. Do not say there is no one left. 3,300 years ago, Moses claimed otherwise. And you shall come to judge who will be in those days [when you are living].

We may not have the Rebbes and leaders we had in the past, and we certainly do not fill their shoes, but a lot of it is perspective. G-d runs our world and He has given us the resources we need to live fully as Jews and to actualize our potentials and realize our mission today. With a change of perspective you might realize there are great human beings all around you, if you can only open your eyes. Even the man or woman staring at you in the mirror is a great human being, if you only opened your eyes.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


Frankidels wrote...

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