“Shoftim v’shotrim ti’ten lecha b’chol she’arecha asher Hashem Elokecha nosein lecha li’shevatecha…”
I count no less than five possessives in the command to appoint judges contained in first sentence of Parshas Shoftim: lecha, she’arecha, Elokecha, lecha, li’shevatecha – judges for you, in your gates, given by your G-d, to you, to your tribes. The command to appoint judges is personalized to a degree that I don’t think we see with respect to other mitzvos, but I think there is good reason for that.
Rav Shach (heard from Rav Leiff) was once asked by a close talmid for advice on how to improve himself – advice we could all use as we enter the month of Elul and draw closer to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Rav Shach replied that he could offer no answer, but no answer was really needed. He explained by elucidating the following gemara:
Chazal (Nedarim 81a) tell us that the prophets, the wise people, the scholars, were all asked why Hashem was going to bring about the churban Beis haMikdash. None could offer an answer. Finally, with no one left to ask, Hashem himself revealed the reason for the destruction. The gemara cites a pasuk and interprets it to mean that it was the failure to recite birchas haTorah which caused the churban. The Ran explains the enigmatic answer to mean that although many people were learning, the failure to recite a bracha indicated that they did not assign as much importance to their learning as they should have (other interpretations are offered).
How could Hashem fault the Jewish people and punish them with the horror of churban when they were unaware that they were doing anything wrong? The gemara itself tells us that even the Chachamim and Nevi’im did not see the problem! Is it fair to hold people accountable for crimes that could not have been known?
Rav Shach answered that the Chachamim and Nevi’im may not have been able to detect the problem, but each person knew in his heart exactly what was wrong. An outsider, no matter how great his wisdom, no matter how great his prophetic gift, can often miss what we all know deep down are our own shortcomings and failings.
Rav Shach told that talmid that he could not prescribe for him what he needed to do during the month of Elul to improve himself, but undoubtedly, if that talmid searched his heart, he would discover that he already knew the answer.
Our parsha is speaking not only about the obligation to establish courts and police in society at large, but about our obligation to police ourselves and judge our own actions. This type of judgment requires introspection, it is intensely personal, and hence the language of our pasuk – appoint judges for yourself, as commanded by your G-d, for your own gates. More important than any musar sermons or advice that we might receive from others during this month of Elul is the thoughts we might take away from an honest assessment and judgment of ourselves.