I got an email the other day, soliciting donations for a worthy cause.

“Sure, I think I can give something,” I thought to myself. “They’re doing good work, and I want to help.”

Filled with a sense of righteous generosity, I reached for my credit card.

And then it started.

“Are you sure?” said that little voice in my head. “That’s a lot of money you’re about to give away. Maybe it’s better to give some of it to the local bikur cholim organization, which helps the sick, or Hatzalah, our neighborhood volunteer ambulance corps. Why are you being so thoughtless with your donations?”

It was all very good logic, and I was torn.

Well, you can imagine the end of the story … By the time I finished being so smart and discretionary with my funds, what happened?

That’s right. No one got anything.

So smart, yet so stupid.

And sadly. That’s how it goes all too often. I, you, and everyone else must be very careful not to get derailed like that.

A Puzzling Narrative Break

Our parshah opens with a long monologue from Moses. In fact, the entire book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell speech to the nation prior to his passing and in anticipation of their entry into the Promised Land.

The opening verses are essentially words of rebuke. Among other things, Moses recalls how almost 40 years earlier, the Jews were ready to enter the Land of Israel, but that plan was foiled due to the fiasco with the spies. Smack in the middle of this narrative about the spies, however, Moses interrupts himself and recalls how he appointed judges to ease the burden of meting out justice to the people.

Here are two of the relevant verses:

So I took the heads of your tribes, men wise and well known, and I made them heads over you, leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens, and officers, over your tribes.

And I commanded your judges at that time, saying, "Hear [disputes] between your brothers, and judge justly between a man and his brother and between his litigant.1

Puzzling, to say the least. Why was it necessary to interrupt the narrative and insert this seemingly unrelated historic episode? Take a look: if you read the verses before and after in the original, it really is a non-sequitur. So what’s the deal?

Conquering the Promised Land

Let’s remember where the Jews stood at the moment: poised to finally enter the Promised Land and conquer the heathen nations who lived there.

The first thing we must establish is that this landmark move is not limited to the historical narrative of a nation entering their promised geographical spot on planet earth, rather it’s a spiritual narrative that recurs and lives on to this very day.

Indeed, the notion of entering Israel and conquering heathen nations was and continues to be a spiritual odyssey, an exercise in which a nation inspired by G‑d seeks to conquer negative forces and bring them under that sacred wing. To take a place that is devoid of holiness, and stands in opposition to G‑d and G‑dliness, and transform it into a thriving center of Divinity.

To take it one step further, this spiritual odyssey is not only a communal, global mission, rather it exists in the microcosm as well—in the heart and mind of every person. In other words, “Conquering the Land of Israel” is a personal exercise: to battle internal negative forces and bring them into the Promised Land.

Or, to put it in even simpler terms, every time you work on yourself to be a better, holier person, you have conquered another inch of your personal Israel and wrested it away from the clutches of negativity.

Who’s the Bad Guy?

So, who’s the opposition here? On the global, historical scale, the Jewish people encountered seven heathen nations and spent many years wresting the land from them. But in our internal, personal story of “entering the Promised Land,” who’s the bogeyman we’re fighting against?

Ah. It’s the yetzer hara, that inner impulse, the voice that tries to convince you to do all sorts of things you probably shouldn’t be doing. Or keeping you from doing the stuff you should be doing.

Of course, that inner voice doesn’t define you, and you most definitely have the choice and fortitude to overcome it, but there’s no denying that it exists.

Here Come the Judges

It is in this context that appointing judges is oh so relevant.

You see, that inner voice luring you away from your better self is not always so overt. Sure, if you’re suddenly seized with the urge to go out on the town and drink yourself silly, smash some windows, and steal some money while you’re at it, you’re probably wise and strong enough to immediately banish such ridiculous impulses and stay put.

But it doesn’t usually work that way. More often than not, our inner yetzer hara is cunning, conniving, and so convincing. So often, it can be devilishly difficult to determine if a certain impulse or drive is really all that bad—and hey, sometimes, it even sounds good!

How many times have you fooled yourself into thinking that something you did was a positive thing to do, only to later realize that it wasn’t that way at all? It happens to the best of us, and it takes extreme vigilance to ensure that you get it right every time.

That’s why we need “judges.” Prior to entering your Promised Land, make sure you have an internal judge that carefully scrutinizes every action, every move, every impulse to the point where you can honestly say, “I thought about it, I deliberated, I was critical, and my inner judge has given a verdict.”

No one is ever on cruise control. No matter how righteous, virtuous, or moral you think you are, you’re human and prone to mistakes. It’s programmed into everyone’s spiritual DNA. So, don’t be foolish to think your yetzer hara is dead. No—it’s right there inside of you.

The good news is that the more aware you are, the more critical your inner judge can be.

Here’s one handy tip to determine whether or not something is coming from your yetzer hara: if that inner voice is stopping you from actually doing something—regardless of how sophisticated the calculation is—it’s probably coming from the yetzer hara. The good side loves positive action, so if your inner machinations have you resting on your laurels, you’ve probably been duped.

Brush up your inner judge, and never be duped again.