I deliberately suggest we “control” the critical voice in our minds, rather than eliminate it, because I think it plays a role in protecting us from wrongdoing. I have been confronted this week with some of the darker sides of humans. I was disturbed to hear about cruelty to men, women and their children who have escaped horrific oppression, because they dared to seek a better life and perhaps because of cultural differences that are seen as a threat (1). In this case, fear of people who are seen as different, is the motivator for cruelty. However, here the critical voice expressing fear of wrongdoing could have motivated these people to do the right thing. Every weekday morning during the current Hebrew month of Elul, Jews sound a ram’s horn called a Shofar, to instil “a sense of trepidation and fear” (2), even “trembling” (3), in order to lead us to repentance and introspection.
Some religious people fear the physical world - its sensual pleasures and material offerings. In a crowded Sydney Mosque, I heard a very young Imam warn against the evils of the “dunya”, the physical world, with great intensity. This week’s Torah reading tells us to appoint police officers at “all our gates” (4). In a metaphoric sense, this is interpreted to mean that we must appoint an internal ”policeman” to monitor our contact with the world that comes through our five senses (5). Societies look eagerly to police to protect them from the vices of their fellow citizens. In the US, this approach has not worked out well, in recent months, for some African Americans.
Instead of allowing fear to justify excessive policing, we must embrace a healthier kind of fear - not of the common man but of the corruption of those in positions of power. The Torah warns of the bias that can arise from judges accepting bribes (6), which can ultimately cause even an initially righteous judge to lose his mind (7). The Torah insists that a king must be vigilant to ensure that “his heart does not become elevated above his brothers and that he does not stray from God’s commandments” (8).
One scholar expresses deep distrust of those in power. He suggests that it would be better for those with power to be appointed for fixed terms of three years or less so that their successors could hold them to account and “investigate them to see whether they breached their trusted role”, in the way that Australian Governments often do with their predecessors. He also insists that, when there is a dispute between one (a ruler) and many (the citizens), we should follow the view of the many. He argues that the risk of “an individual doing wrong out of foolishness, desire or anger, is greater than that happening with the many” (9). Similar sentiments were expressed last week by an eleven-year-old student from a migrant family in Western Sydney. She thought ”the Australian way was right”, because of our system of government that requires, at least in its design, that the will of the people be implemented rather than that of one despotic ruler.
In terms of the sensual temptations themselves, the Torah does not see them as simply bad. On the contrary, we are cautioned against rejecting the pleasures of this world. A person who vows not to drink wine temporarily (10), is seen as having sinned in a sense. Sheikh Soner Coruhlu has a different view of the material/physical world from the one expressed by the young Imam above. He wrote that “The ’Dunya', from my understanding of our tradition, is an opportunity…to draw nearer unto to the Creator by proving one's self worthy of drawing near. The manner in which one draws near to their Lord is … moral excellence while believing in the Most High. The “Dunya” therefore is an opportunity when one is morally and ethically inclined but a threat if one is miserly, oppressive, immoral, unethical etc.” (11).
Fear of our own human vulnerability to do wrong is a necessity and a blessing when it is used wisely and proportionately. Fear of people who appear different from us, is simply bigotry. Being wary of those in positions of power or even of our own internal policeman getting out of control, is vital.
2) Sadia Gaon, cited in http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/4392/jewish/Sounding-of-the-Shofar.htm
3) Amos 3:6 “If the shofar is sounded in the city, will people not tremble?”
4) Deuteronomy 16:18
5) Attributed to Rav Chaim Vital on http://www.shortvort.com/shoftim-parasha/11901-parashas-shoftim-guard-your-senses
6) Deuteronomy 16:19
7) Talmud Ketubot, 105a, referring to the taking of bribes
8) Deuteronomy 17:20
9) Abarbanel on Shoftim. On the other hand, the commentator Klei Yakar, seems more concerned about the independence of judges. He emphasises the need to protect judges from the potentially corrupting influences of those who install the judges, if they were to retain an influence after they complete the task of installing someone as a judge. The change in form from the beginning to the end of the verse in the Torah that calls for the appointment of judges, is instructive. “Judges and police officers shall you put in all your gates...and they shall judge the people a just justice”. We start with an imperative instruction to the people to תתן appoint judges. This refers to people who are in a position of influence who can help select and appoint the judges. Then the language shifts to talk about what will happen: “they will judge justly”, as if by themselves, with the ‘appointers’ out of the picture. This hints at the need for complete independence of the judiciary from those who appoint them because, if they remain dependent on those people, there will never be justice. There is no naïve assumption of religious leaders retaining purity just by virtue of their office and past righteousness. The political influences on secular judges in Australia and Israel, as it relates to asylum seeker judgements, can also be considered in this light.
10) A Nazirite who vows not to drink wine among other vows, must bring a sacrifice to atone for rejecting some of God’s gifts, even temporarily
11) Facebook post, 18.08.2015, https://www.facebook.com/zalman.kastel/posts/10153457332070470?comment_id=10153457499415470¬if_t=like his post continues with the following. “The human being is distinct from the rest of Creation in that it has the capacity to morally judge the outcome of any action or statement it may partake in. Where most of creation will simply follow the whims of their desires, the human being will first analyse what the consequence of following one's desires may be. Will this act harm another person, another animal, the environment, me and so forth. Those who do not use this God given capacity to make such judgements and simply follow their base desires, even when it harms others, behaves in a way that is not unlike the animals”.