All societies require some means of government to maintain law and order. So the Torah’s directive, in the opening of this week’s Torah portion, to establish judges and police to enforce the law is not surprising. As the Mishna writes (Pirkei Avos 3:2), “Pray for the peace of the government, for if not for fear of it, man would swallow his friend alive.”
There is, however, something confusing in the Torah’s instruction: it writes (Deut 16:18) “Judges and Police you should appoint ‘Lecha’ — for yourself.” As this instruction is given to the entire Jewish people, as a nation, we would expect it to use the plural form ‘Lachem’ — referring to all of you. Why would the Torah give this commandment to the individual? What authority and power can each individual have to appoint judges and police, servants of the public?
While the stability of society is highly dependent upon law enforcement, this does not guarantee its success. The Talmud states that while a judge may do his best to practice and enforce the law, “the judge only has what his eyes see (Sanhedrin 6b).” He only knows what the evidence presented tells him. Crimes may be committed with impunity, if there is no evidence of those crimes presented to law enforcement. If so, what prevents members of society from committing crimes in private, hidden from the eyes of the law?
For this reason the law was and is addressed to all the individuals of the Jewish nation. If people violate the laws even in secret, society erodes from within, and this eventually takes its toll on public law and order. Each person must employ their own methods of judging and policing, to insure their personal success, and the success of society. That may be a daily or weekly personal accounting, or studying and meditating over ethical works to fortify core values, but it is an obligation for each person to police his or her own behavior.
I recently tried to pay for parking at a parking meter, and the machine’s system froze and I wasn’t sure it took my payment. When I later got home, I realized I was never charged for the parking, so I innocently called up the number on the parking meter to try to pay over the phone. The administrator on the other end couldn’t understand why I wanted to pay. “You don’t have to pay. You’re just lucky!” was her response.
This popular sentiment that whatever you can get away with is allowed, and even celebrated, puts the health of our society into jeopardy. As Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgement, approaches, it’s time to contemplate how we’re policing ourselves, and what we’re doing to recharge our values of honesty, and commitment. In less than a month’s time, we’ll all be judged, and it’s important for us to preempt the judgement with our own personal accounting. This is crucial for our own spiritual health, and ultimately the health of our community, society, and all humanity. (Based on HaRav Yeruchem Levovits zt”l, Sefer Daas Torah)