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At the Gates

08/17/2023 03:44:27 PM


This week, we begin the Hebrew month of Elul, and the season of repentance. We also read a Torah portion, Shoftim, which describes in depth the organizational structure that the Jewish people are to set for themselves in the promised land. King, prophets, priests, generals, elders, judges and officers each have their role in ensuring an orderly civil society. 

The portion begins by commanding that judges and officers are to be set “in all your gates.” The text could have been idiomatic. Since most cities were protected by walls with gates, the implication is that every major town, any place with a gated wall, had to have these basic functionaries of civil order within. However, the phrase “in your gates” also may have been meant literally. In the ancient world the judges often held court literally in the gates of the city. The city gate was a very public place, where in any given day, almost every resident would come to transact business. In the Biblical stories of Abraham, Jacob, Ruth and many others, an announcement made at the city gate is considered to have been to all the residents of the town.

However, as we approach the season of penitence, and seek to improve our souls, I’m also drawn to the metaphorical approach of the Or Hatorah, a Hasidic commentary. He suggests that we can understand this commandment of judges and officers within the gates in terms of the ways that we resist temptation. He notes that there are five “gateways” into the body, namely the five senses, and five corresponding outgoing paths, through the same gates, by which we in turn influence others. All of our experiences are filtered through these gateways.

We must therefore be more careful in judging the information and stimuli that come to us from each gateway, whether it be sight, taste, smell, touch or hearing, because our character is shaped by the influences that we allow in through these gates.  Conversely, we must exert control over our responses back to the larger world as well. It is hard to guard the world of our thoughts and memories, and we certainly cannot police the entire universe outside. The one bit of control that we have is to protect the perimeter and set guards at the gates. This season of repentance is an opportunity to apply better judgment at the gates of our souls.

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784