Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVII, p. 213;
Sefer HaSichos 5749, p. 666;
Sefer HaSichos 5751, p. 780ff

A Measuring Rod

Ever since his creation, man has felt the need to search for truth. Simultaneously, however, he has had to face the limits implied by his own subjectivity, and the awareness that the insights he discovers are thus limited in scope.

By giving the Torah, G‑d provided mankind with an absolute standard of Truth. In contrast to our subjective insights, the Torah gives us objective values guidelines and principles that are applicable in all situations, in every place and at every time.

What is man’s responsibility? To judge. To subject himself and his surroundings to scrutiny and to determine the conduct prescribed by the Torah. He should then act upon that judgment and endeavor to modify his life and environment accordingly. In this way, he elevates himself and his surroundings, lifting them into a connection with G‑d that transcends human conceptions of good.

At the City’s Gates

These concepts are reflected in the name of this week’s Torah reading, Shoftim, “judges,” and its opening verse:1 “Appoint judges and officers at all your gates.”

Placing judges at the gates of a city reflects a desire to have every element of the city’s functioning conform to the standard of Torah law. The judges will convey the Torah’s dictates, and the officers will take steps to ensure that these directives are applied.

In this vein, the Rambam2 uses this verse as a prooftext for the commandment to appoint judges and police in every city in Eretz Yisrael. In an extended sense, the verse also serves as a lesson that each person must act as a judge and an officer in his own home, structuring it according to the Torah’s standards.

This concept is further amplified by an interpretation3 of “your gates” as referring to the body’s sensory organs the eyes, ears, skin, nose and mouth. These serve as the “gates” through which we take in information from the environment. We are enjoined to “appoint judges” at these gates, so that even our physical perception will be permeated by the guidance of the Torah.

Moreover, the Torah uses the singular form of the word “your gates,” שעריך , implying that these efforts are incumbent upon every individual. Every person is “a city in microcosm,”4 and should “appoint judges and officers” to control his interactions with the world at large.

The Need for Enforcement

The judges within our communities and similarly, the judgmental aspects of our own personalities cannot only look inwards. On the contrary, our Sages state5 that a judge must “gird his loins with bands of steel, lift his robes above his knees, and traverse from city to city… to teach the Jewish people.”

Nevertheless, this outreach contains an intrinsic drawback. What is a judge’s authority? The objective standard dictated by the Torah. And since the Torah is fundamentally above mortal intellect, people may have difficulty relating to the judge’s directives. Even when they acknowledge the truth of these directives and recognize that they should be obeyed, there may be a gap between such recognition and their own understanding. And this gap may keep such directives from being applied.

There are two ways to resolve this difficulty. The first is mentioned in the verse cited: the appointment of enforcement officers who will compel others6 to carry out the judges’ rulings.7

There is, however, a shortcoming to this approach. For although enforced compliance to the Torah’s standards ensures just conduct in the world at large, the person compelled to observe remains unrefined. He has been forced to conform to the Torah’s standard, but that conformity is merely external.

Internalizing Morality

A more comprehensive approach is suggested by a verse from Isaiah describing the Era of the Redemption:8 “And I will return your judges as in former times, and your advisers as at the beginning.” This implies that the standards which the judges dictate will be complemented by “advisers.”

An adviser does not issue mandates. Instead, as the name implies, he offers constructive suggestions. He is more or less on the same level as the person he advises, and speaks to him as a good friend, with whom he has much in common. The listener feels comfortable hearing this advice and accepts it, not on faith, but with the understanding that it will benefit him.

When “advisers” thus share and explain rulings delivered by the judges, the dictates of the Torah change not only a person’s conduct, but also his character.

The Spirit of Prophecy

The difference between these two kinds of observance that brought about by enforcement and that brought about by understanding and consent can be illustrated by comparing the function of a judge with that of a prophet a subject also mentioned in this week’s Torah reading.

In the Introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah, the Rambam explains two functions served by a prophet:

a) to urge people to observe the Torah and its mitzvos, as the prophet Malachi called out:9 “Remember the Torah of Moshe, My servant;”

b) to give advice regarding conduct in worldly matters. “G‑d granted us prophets in the place of astrologers, sorcerers, and diviners, so that we can ask them matters of a general nature, and those of a particular nature.” In this vein, King Shaul went to the prophet Shmuel to ask about his father’s donkeys.10

With regard to the determination of Torah law, the Rambam continues:

The Holy One, blessed be He, did not permit us to learn from the prophets, but rather from the Sages… It does not say: “And you will come to the prophet who will be in that age,” but rather “And you will come to… the judge who will be in that age.”11

Here we see a pattern resembling the one described above: Sages and judges teach the dictates of Torah law, prescribing modes of conduct. And the prophets convey G‑d’s word on a level more closely related to people’s ordinary experience, encouraging them to make G‑dliness a part of their daily lives.

A Fundamental Element of Faith

To emphasize the importance of prophecy, the Rambam states:12 “One of the fundamentals of [our] faith is to know that G‑d sends His prophecies through people.”

Since this is a “fundamental of faith,” we can understand that it applies at all times. Our Sages state13 “that from the time the later prophets, Chaggai, Zachariah, and Malachi died, the spirit of prophecy departed from Israel.” Nevertheless, the word “departed” does not mean it was abolished completely. The spirit of prophecy did not cease, but rather ascended to a higher plane.14

Indeed, even after the era of the Biblical prophets, the spirit of prophecy permeated many people. For this reason, in the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam includes a lengthy discussion of the subject of prophecy,15 without mentioning the cessation of prophecy, or that the spirit of prophecy can flourish only in a specific time. And in his Iggeres Taimon, the Rambam speaks about several prophets in his own time.16

The Message of Our Judges and Prophets

These are not subjects for history texts, but concepts particularly relevant to the present era. As a foretaste of the fulfillment of the prophecy: “And I will return your judges as in former times, and your advisers as at the beginning,” in the age before Mashiach’s coming, we have been granted judges and prophets17 to provide us with direction and guidance.18 And often these qualities have been personified in single individuals,19 as manifest in the Nesi’im of Chabad until the present age.20

These leaders have, like judges, given us directives regarding the nature of the present time: to borrow an expression of the Previous Rebbe,21 “all the buttons have been polished,” and we are in the final moments before the Ultimate Redemption. And like advisers, they have provided us with the insight to anticipate the Redemption in our lives, and prepare an environment in which this spirit can spread throughout the world.