Toward the end of the summer we read Parshat Shoftim, in which the Jewish people are commanded to appoint judges and guards at their gates – “ שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ – You should appoint judges and guards at all your gates”. Whenever the Torah uses the word לְךָ, which literally means ‘for you’, it means for your good or benefit and the Sifri goes on to explain that having judges and guards is a good thing because they will offer an outside perspective to watch over the Jewish people and keep on the straight path.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (1:6) tells us, “יהושוע בן פרחיה אומר, עשה לך רב, וקנה לך חבר; והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות – Yehoshua ben Parchia says, make for yourself a teacher, buy for yourself a friend and judge every person favorably.” First of all, why does the Mishna use the term ‘קנה’ which means to buy, acquire or purchase when referring to a friend? Second of all, what is the connection between the first part of the Mishna, discussing those people whom you surround yourself with, and the second part, which discusses judging people?
As we know, the Torah is eternal and even those parts which seem not so relevant today, like appointing judges and guards to our gates in Biblical Israel, carry deep eternal messages for all of us even today. As we discussed back on day 26, the Torah tells us, immediately after the pasuk regarding appointing judges, about the dangers of being blinded by our biases and ‘bribes’. We explained that this can be explained as a warning about being biased in our own decision making. What the Torah is telling us in appointing guards and judges at our gates, is that we must hire watchmen in our own life, at all our ‘gates’ – those situations which separate our comfort zones from the outside world – to give us a more objective perspective. This is why the Mishna tells us to ‘buy’ friends, not that we should try and purchase people to be our friends, but rather that we need to realize that our friends must be our ‘hired guards’ people we employee to keep us safe and tell us when we are straying. That is also why the Mishna discusses judgement, because the overall theme is that of make good decisions and only when we have appointed friends and teachers – guards and judges – will we be able to judge others favorably by getting passed our person hang-ups and biases.
The people we surround ourselves with make all the difference in the world and that is why the Torah is telling us to appoint guards and judges – friends and teachers, people who we entrust with keeping us on the straight path and who can offer us good advice and an outside perspective to prevent us from being blinded by our own bias. It is crucial that we surround ourselves with people who can be trusted with this task, people who aren’t afraid to tell us when we mess up and people who we will listen to when they do. We need to surround ourselves with good influences, with friends and teachers who will allow us to judge others favorably and not get hung up with our own bias.
Today’s Jewish mission is to ‘appoint guards and judges at all your gates’ and make sure that the people who we are surrounded with are good influences and will keep us on the straight path.
Thanks to Rabbi B and A&J for their influence on this post.