You can’t always get what you want,

But if you try sometimes, well you might find

You get what you need. (M. Jagger, K. Richards 1998)

It should not be surprising that Parashat Shofetim — “Judges” — has much to do with the Jewish judicial system. The Torah tells us what we are to do in case we find ourselves in a legal imbroglio [Devarim 17:8-9]: “If a matter eludes you in judgment, between blood and blood, between judgment and judgment, or between lesion and lesion, words of dispute in your cities, then you shall rise and go up to [court]. You shall come to the [judges] who will be in those days and you shall inquire, and they will tell you the words of judgment.”

The Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [25b] has trouble with the Torah’s wording: We are supposed to go specifically to a judge “who will be in those days”? Does anyone think that we would go to a judge who will not be in those days? While I would love nothing more than to be judged by the Rambam or  by Moshe Rabbeinu, their office hours today are next to nil[1]. The Talmud answers “Although this judge may not be [of the same stature] as other judges who preceded him, you must listen to him, for you have only the judge [who lives] in your time”. The Talmud concludes with the words “Yiftach in his generation is like Samuel in his generation.” Yiftach, according to the Talmud, was the absolute worst of all the Judges. He was a good warrior but not a terribly good leader. He came from questionable descent and he was scorned by his family. He committed questionable actions – he may or may not have sacrificed his own daughter because of a slip of the tongue and because of a power play with the only person who could have rectified the situation[2]. Samuel, on the other hand, was the greatest of the Judges. He was a prophet who anointed two kings – Saul and David. The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [31b] asserts that Samuel was a great as Moshe and Aharon combined. And yet, a person in Yiftach’s time who went to court could not say “Yiftach is incompetent. I want a judge like Samuel”. Similarly, we cannot say “Today’s judges are incompetent and their verdicts are worthless”. We must treat our judges and their verdicts with the same kind of respect that we would treat Samuel and his verdicts. The system is more important than the people who happen to be running the system.

Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, the Mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva for over forty years[3], suggests that our relationship with our judges is a two-way street. Notice that the Talmud does not simply say “Yiftach is like Samuel”. What do the words “in his generation” come to add? Rav Shmuelevitz asserts that Hashem will never abandon His people. He will always ensure that in each generation Am Yisrael has judges who fit its particular needs. The result is that a generation that has Samuel as a judge is a generation that needs to have Samuel as a judge. A generation that has Yiftach as a judge is a generation that needs to have Yiftach as a judge. I suggest that this rule can be taken even further: A generation that has Samuel as a judge is a generation that deserves to have Samuel as a judge. A generation that has Yiftach as a judge is a generation that deserves to have Yiftach as a judge.

A closer look indicates that both rules are valid. Samuel did not run for public office. He was appointed by Hashem while he was still an infant[4]. Before he was born, his mother, Hannah, prayed for a son and promised that if she would ever bear a child that she would dedicate him to the service of Hashem. Years later, Hashem came to Hannah and asked for “payment”. Hashem had determined that Samuel’s generation needed to be led by a person of the calibre of Samuel. Yiftach, on the other hand, was appointed not by Hashem but by the elders of the nation. When Am Yisrael ran into trouble with the Amonites they looked for the best warrior available to lead them, regardless of any personal problems he might have. Yiftach was that warrior. Yiftach’s generation deserved to be led by a person of the calibre of Yiftach.

How does this reflect upon us? Often we feel like an orphaned generation. We ask ourselves where are our religious leaders. Who today can fill the shoes of Rav J.B. Soloveichik or of the Lubavitcher Rebbe? Who can adjudicate over complex halachic issues with the same expertise as Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach or as Rav Ovadiah Yossef? And what of our political leaders? The United States was once led by Abraham Lincoln, by Teddy Roosevelt and by FDR. While these presidents admittedly had their own foibles, can anyone really include Donald Trump with them in the same sentence? A President who rules from Twitter? A President who nearly a full year after taking office has an administration that is not even close to coalescing because none of his appointees are sure what the President really thinks about them? And yet we ourselves voted him in[5]. As much as we ridicule Donald Trump, Rav Shmuelevitz would say that we are a generation that deserves Donald Trump[6].

But there is a way out of this imbroglio. When Amalek attack Am Yisrael shortly after they cross the Red Sea, Hashem commands Moshe to sit on a rock and to hold his hands above his head [Shemot 17:11]: “Whenever Moshe would raise his hands skywards Am Yisrael would win and whenever he would lower his hands Amalek would win”. The Mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [3:8] asks “Are we to believe that the hands of Moshe determined who won or lost the battle? Rather, whenever Am Yisrael would look skywards and subjugate their hearts to Hashem, they would rise, and whenever they looked away from Hashem, they would fall”. Rav Arieh Leib Alter from Gur, writing in the “Sefat Emet”, suggests that the pronoun “they” (they would rise, they would fall) is not referring to Am Yisrael. Rather, it is referring to Moshe’s hands. When Am Yisrael subjugated their hearts to Hashem, Moshe’s hands would rise. And when Am Yisrael turned away from Hashem, Moshe’s hands would fall. We have the ability to empower our leaders. By overcoming our own constraints we can help our leaders to overcome their own constraints. If we can change our needs, than our leaders who were chosen to “fit our particular needs” will — must — change along with us.

As we head into the month of Elul and the High Holidays, we should treat this as both an opportunity and as a challenge. We must stop bemoaning our fate and get to the task of changing it. The way we lead will determine the way we will be led.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and HaRav Chaim Nosson Eliyahu ben Lana.

[1] While King Saul did call the ghost of Samuel using a Ouija board (“Ov”), this was the exception and not the rule.

[2] According to the Midrash this was Pinchas the grandson of Aharon.

[3] Rav Shmuelevitz’s “Sichot Mussar” – “Talks on Ethics” – was required reading when I was in Yeshiva.

[4] Jeremiah was also appointed before he was born.

[5] Over Hillary, mind you, but we still voted him in.

[6] I’m going to leave Binyamin Netanyahu out of this discussion. I’m writing this shiur so it’s my prerogative.