Parshas Shoftim 5758

Parshas Shoftim 5758

Upping the Ante

"You shall appoint for yourselves judges and officers in all your cities that Hashem has given to your tribes for an inheritance, and they shall judge the people with honest justice." (Devarim 17:18)

Go to the ant you lazy one, consider her ways and become wise. She has no ruler or overseer, yet she prepares her sustenance in the summer, gathering in her food during the harvest.” (Proverbs 6:6-8)

"What did Shlomo HaMelech (the author of Proverbs) see in the ant that he thought we could learn from? The ant has a three story house, yet she doesn't go into the upper story since it may leak, or into the lower one since it is cold and damp. She lives only in the middle story. Her life span is only six months. Why is it that a creature that has no bones or muscles should live only six months? In her entire life she manages to eat only one or two grains of wheat. All summer long she collects grains of wheat, barley and lentils, and stores them away in her house.

R' Tanchuma asked, "If the ant needs only one or two grains of wheat for her food and lives for only six months, why does she go through the trouble to store away food?"

"It is because she thinks to herself, 'Perhaps Hashem will decree for me a longer life. Then I will have food my prepared.'"


R' Shimon Bar Yochai once found an ant's home and it was filled with 300 Kor ( about 20,000 U.S. gallons!) of wheat that she had collected during the summer. Therefore Shlomo HaMelech said, "Go to the ant you lazy one, consider her ways and become wise." Prepare yourself, store up your mitzvos and good deeds in this world then you will have them for the next world.

What did Shlomo HaMelech infer that we should consider her ways and become wise? The Rabbis pointed out a special quality that the ant has; she is very strict concerning theft. R' Shimon bar Chalafta once saw that an ant dropped a grain of wheat and all the other ants came and smelled it (to see if it was theirs), but not one of them took it. They waited for the ant who dropped it to come and retrieve it.

See what wonderful wisdom the ant possesses. She learned not from the other creatures, nor did she have the benefit of judges or officers to instruct her, as it is written, "She has no ruler or overseer. . .". Therefore the human species, who has judges and officers, all the more so should they listen to them and learn from them, as it is written, 'Judges and officer appoint for you in all your cities. . .".

R’ Shimon Bar Yochai said, “Woe is man who must learn from the ant, and woe is man who doesn't!”

(Midrash Rabbah Devarim 5:2)

The ant's incredible behavior can be explained with the aid of a verse, “Only this have I found, that Hashem has made the man upright, but they have made many inventions.” (Ecclesiastes 7:29)

“Upright” is an allusion to the quality of Tiferes (beauty). Tiferes itself corresponds to Yaacov Avinu, who is called the median or perfect way. The world could not have been sustained with only Chesed (kindness, mercy) which Avraham expounded, or with Gevurah (strict justice) which Yitzchok expounded. Tiferes is the blend between then. It doesn’t tend towards either of the two extremes. Rather Tiferes is a compound composed of both Chesed and Gevurah, yet having a new and distinct identity.

(In science, there is a distinction between a mixture and a compound. Sugar mixed with flour becomes a substance in which every bit of the mixture has an equal amount of each ingredient. However, each grain of sugar and each grain of flour remains distinct, and neither has undergone any change in character. A compound, on the other hand, is something like table salt, which is composed of two ingredients, sodium and chlorine. Sodium is a volatile metal, which bursts into flame when in contact with water, not something which one would put into one's food. Chlorine is a green, corrosive gas, which causes a severe choking sensation. When the two get together, they form sodium chloride, an indispensable addition that enhances the taste of food. In a compound, two substances combine, each giving up its individuality, as a totally new substance is created by this fusion.)

Therefore it is written, “. . .Hashem has made the man upright. . .”. A person should endeavor to follow the median way. On one hand he must not be too haughty, lauding himself for his Torah and good deeds. On the other hand, he mustn't be too humble or unpretentious, looking down on himself in disdain until he succumbs to bitterness; despairing of his own self worth and his worth to the world. Both extremes are obstacles in the path to Teshuva.

One should adopt the median path. That is that one must know that man is indeed a lowly creature, barely in control of his desires, yet possessing an inner jewel, a spark of G-dliness and a divine soul that allows one to stand in service before Hashem.

This is alluded to in the commentary of Rashi to Bereishis 37:1 (Parshas Vayeishev). "And Yaacov dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourns; in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Yaacov. . .". Rashi asks why this section is adjoined to the previous section at the end of Parshas Vayishlach which details the family of Esav and it's tribal chieftains. Rashi answers with a parable. A flax dealer, his camels loaded with flax, was going into a warehouse located next to a blacksmith shop. "How can he cram all that flax in there", wondered the blacksmith aloud. A clever person standing nearby replied, “You know, one spark from your smithy could burn it all up.” Similarly, continues Rashi, “When Yaacov saw so many mighty chieftains descending from Esav, he wondered, ‘Who can stand before them and conquer them?' What is written next? 'These are the generation of Yaacov; Yosef' . . .”. "It is further stated written in Obadiah (1:18), 'And the house of Yaacov shall be fire and the house of Yosef a flame and the house of Esav for stubble.' A spark will go forth from Yosef which will consume them all."

There is always a spark of the divine soul in every any Jew which can never be extinguished. That spark can consume all the foolishness and idle thought which confuse a person, and lead him on a straight path to Teshuva.

One is advised to always take the upright path; the median path, because this is the path of the Torah. The Maharal of Prague writes in Tiferes Yisroel, a triangle, or any thing which is threefold, is inherently stable because of its third side. This side keeps the structure from tipping over or leaning to the right or to the left. The Talmud (Shabbos 88a) says regarding the giving of the Torah, "Blessed is the Merciful One who gave us a threefold Torah (Torah, Prophets and Writings), to the threefold people, (Cohen, Levi and Yisroel), by way of the threefold family (Moshe, Aharon and Miriam) on the third day (of separation and purity), and in the third month (Sivan, third month from Nissan). This threefold quality (which has myriad expressions in Jewish sources), represents the stability and eternal nature of the Jewish people.

This brings us back to our little ant to whom we are looking for wisdom. She too understands the secret of three, for she builds herself a three story house. Yet she lives only in the middle one. The top story is too hot and it leaks. The bottom story is too cold and damp. The middle story is the perfect climate, a fusion of the two extremes. The same is true for us. We should avoid the upper story, representative of haughtiness. Nor should we inhabit the bottom story, which represents extreme humility that leads to despair. Rather, our place is only in the middle.

With all of her planning and wisdom, the little ant's life span is only six months! She has no bones or muscles. The bones and muscles correspond to the 365 negative mitzvohs and the 248 positive mitzvohs. The ant is not commanded on any of the mitzvohs; therefore she has no “bones and muscles”. She needs to eat only one or two grains of wheat in her whole life and in the summer, she stores all that she can find. Why does she go through all this trouble for a six month life span? Perhaps Hashem will reverse nature and grant her a longer life! Then her food will have been prepared.

Therefore Shlomo HaMelech said, “Go to the ant lazy one, see consider her ways and become wise”. Prepare yourself, store up your mitzvohs and good deeds in this world so you will have them in the world-to-come.

The ant, who has no “bones and muscles”, no mitzvohs and good deeds to take to the world-to-come, nevertheless with her emunah (faith); that maybe Hashem will grant her a longer life, endeavors to save up for the world-to-come. Even when one has no Torah and no mitzvohs, the faith that Hashem is the true source of all life, can sustain and nourish a Jew for a lifetime.

Thus the ant. She has no real hope for the future, no Torah and no good deeds, nevertheless she puts away her grain in the middle story, of the house she has built. All the more so us, for whom the median, perfect path of Teshuva is always prepared.

Hashem decreed that Teshuva always helps. As it states in the Jerusalem Talmud (Makkos 2:6) “They asked Wisdom, ‘What is the punishment for the one who transgresses?’ Answered Wisdom, ‘The Soul that sins shall die.’

(Ezekiel 18:4) They then asked the Holy One Blessed Be He, ‘What is the punishment for the one who transgresses?’ Answered He, ‘Let him return in Teshuva!’

Even if it wouldn’t occur to one to do Teshuva, Hashem wants it to be known that Teshuva works!

And the ant, even though she has no ruler and no officers over her, will not justify the use of unjust or illegal means to attain her goal. All the more so we, who are commanded to appoint judges and officers to instruct us, should be circumspect in the face of the temptation to steal or bend the law.

It says in the Talmud (Brachos 61b), “The Tzaddikim are governed by the Yezter Tov, the wicked are governed by the Yezter Hara. The Benonim, (intermediate people) are governed by both. One’s Da’as (conscience) is called a judge or governor. A person uses his Da'as to weigh out every action. Is it proper or not?

Tzaddikim are totally consumed by their passion for serving Hashem, learning his Torah, doing his Mitzvos and loving their fellow Jews. Their whole bodies, all their bones and muscles are dedicated to this purpose, and therefore they are never satisfied with their level of divine service, always hoping to improve and refine it. The wicked are the opposite, they never really think that the evil has a hold on them and they always imagine themselves to be Tzaddikim.

The Benonim are judged by both. Sometimes the Yezter Tov is in control and they can make an honest spiritual accounting, and sometimes the Yezter Hara is in control, telling them that everything is OK and they are really complete Tzaddikim.

We are the Benonim. “We are not so impudent and obstinate to declare before You that we are Tzaddikim and have not sinned. Indeed we and our ancestors have sinned.” (Morning Tachanun service) We have done good and we have done the opposite. Nevertheless Hashem is compassionate and merciful and he leaves the door open for those who will return in Teshuva. May we use these days of Elul to improve our divine service and to do complete Teshuva.
(based on an essay in Sefer Yismach Yisroel by R’ Yerachmiel Yisroel Yitzchok of Alexander, Parshas Shoftim #4)

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