Judges and officers shall you place in all your gates that G‑d your Lord gives you… (Deut. 16:18)

So begins our Torah portion, which goes on to elaborate upon numerous laws of the Torah. This essay explores the age-old human quest to touch the Divine by explaining the deeper and personal meaning of "judges and officers" and the inner significance of "your gates".

The Hebrew word for "gate" is "shaar". The Zohar, commenting on the verse "Her Husband is known in the gates" (Proverbs 31:23) associates the word "shaar" with "approximation", in Hebrew, "hashara", and "measure", "shiur". The implication is that approximation and measure are somehow "gates." The text of the Zohar follows:

Rabbi Yehuda said: The Holy One blessed be He is transcendent in His glory. He is hidden and removed far beyond all ken; there is none in the world, nor has there ever been one from the day the world was created, whom His wisdom and essence do not elude, since He is concealed and hidden, so that neither the supernal nor the lower beings are able to commune with Him…so they say, "Blessed be the glory of G‑d from His place [wherever that may be]" (Ezekiel 3:12), because He is unknowable and no one can truly understand Him. If so, how can you say, Her Husband [referring to G‑d] is well-known in the gates? The Holy One makes Himself known to every one according to the measure of his understanding…

But, in truth, the Holy One makes Himself known to every one according to the measure of his understanding and his capacity to attach himself to the spirit of the divine wisdom; and thus "her Husband is known", [not in the gates, "she'arim",] but through "hashara" ["approximation"]. (Zohar I:103a-b. Based on Soncino translation)

The Zohar is asking a powerful question. How can it be said that G‑d ("her Husband") is well known, when in fact He eludes even the supernal beings? The answer is that He is known "b'she'arim", meaning not "in the gates" but "in approximation".

There are two general levels of knowledge, known as "yediat hametziut" and "yediat hamehut". "Yediat hametziut" means that you know that the thing exists, but you have no conception of what it actually is. This is called an approximate knowledge, meaning that based on other facts and perceptions that you have, you arrive at the conclusion that a certain thing exists - but you could not describe it.

Take art, for example. What is art? We know art by its manifestation. A beautiful painting is not art itself but its manifestation. What is art itself? We know it exists as an independent entity but we can only describe and truly know its manifestation as it is expressed on a canvass. The study of the mystical is…not completely satisfying, since the person never truly feels that he has a firm grasp of the subject…

The same is true of intellect. We know that intellect exists independent of its manifestation in particular thoughts and ideas but we cannot describe its being.

Another example is the power of thought, which we know is present throughout the body, not only in the brain. (The proof for this is that a person's hand reacts immediately when the mind thinks of moving it. If the power of thought were not present throughout the body, there would be some delay before the hand moves.) However, we cannot conceive of the nature of the type of thought that resides in a hand or foot. Additionally, the study of the mystical dimension of Torah is described as "yediat hametziut", while the study of the legal aspects of Torah is described as "yediat hamehut"; the study of the mystical is therefore compared to the manna, which was not completely satisfying, since the person never truly feels that he has a firm grasp of the subject. To gain indirect knowledge, one must see things as they are in their essence, without their trappings…

An approximate or indirect knowledge of a thing is obviously an inferior level of knowledge. However, the method of reasoning that leads to such knowledge is superior to the method of reasoning that brings to direct knowledge. To gain indirect knowledge, one must see things as they are in their essence, without their trappings. Such a perspective allows the person to deduce what it not obvious and manifest. The Rebbe cites as an example the "ta shma" -"come and hear", which is the preface used by the Talmud before it cites a case in one subject to prove a point in another. By stripping away the outer garb of the law, the Talmud finds its kernel of wisdom that can be applied to a seemingly irrelevant case.

Similarly, our knowledge of G‑d is one in which we cannot conceive of G‑d's essence, only of His manifestation. Of His essence we know only that it exists but we have no way of describing it.

The 10 Sefirot

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai offers a different interpretation in the Zohar:

The gates mentioned in this passage are the same as the gates in the passage, "Lift up your heads, o gates…" (Psalms 24:7) and refer to the supernal levels by and through which alone a knowledge of the Almighty is possible to man, and but for which man could not commune with G‑d. Similarly, man's soul cannot be known directly, save through the members of the body, which are the levels that form the instruments of the soul. The soul is thus known and unknown. So it is with the Holy One blessed be He, since He is the Soul of souls…covered and veiled from all; nevertheless, through those gates, which are doors for the soul, the Holy One makes Himself known.

According to Rabbi Shimon, the Holy One can be known only through His "gates", i.e. the ten sefirot of Atzilut. G‑d emanated these sefirot so that He could be manifest in some manner, so that man, whose soul mirrors the ten sefirot of Atzilut, could relate to Him on a psychological and emotional level. (Chochma of Atzilut, for example, creates the ability for man to relate to the Divine on an intellectual level, etc.) For without such a bridge there would be no way for the finite to sense the infinite.

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, the Ramak, describes the ten sefirot in his Pardes:

[They are] like speech and writing, which reveal by their limitation and allow the hidden wisdom of the sage to be sensed… ...meditation upon the manifestation of the Divine in the ten sefirot…allows a person to gain a sense of the infinite…

Speaking or writing an idea of course limits the idea to certain parameters and in a sense conceals the idea. However, it is only through this concealment and limitation that the idea can be revealed to the outside. Similarly, the sefirot work in this dual fashion, concealment and revelation at once. This duality is expressed in the word sefira, which is related to both the Hebrew word for "number", "mispar", (connoting limitation) and the word for "telling", "l'saper", since the sefirot limit and thereby "tell the story" of their source.

So it is through intense meditation upon the manifestation of the Divine in the ten sefirot and the path of Torah and mitzvot that allows a person to gain a sense of the infinite.

The Soul

Now, as Rabbi Shimon says in the Zohar, the soul, which is a part of G‑d, is also essentially unknowable. We may know its manifestation, but we cannot describe it. It is not, as many mistake it to be, intellect. Intellect is only a manifestation of the soul. The nature of the soul itself, however, is unknowable.

This is demonstrated in a fascinating account in the Talmud:

When the students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai came before him [at his deathbed] he began to cry. They said to him, "Master, why do you cry?" He replied, "If I were being brought to a king of flesh and blood, who today is here and tomorrow in the grave, whose anger is not eternal and whose bondage is not eternal and whose death penalty is not eternal, whom I can appease with words and bribe with coins - yet I would cry; now that I am being brought before the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He, whose anger is eternal and whose bondage is eternal…how can I not cry? Furthermore, there are two paths before me: one to Gan Eden the other to Gehinom, and I do not know to which path they will lead me." (Berachot 29b)

How could Rabbi Yochanan, whose entire life was devoted to Torah and good deeds, a man who was quite at home in the supernal realms, who had raised illustrious students, have been afraid that he may be lead on the path to Gehinom?

The answer is that Rabbi Yochanan knew that he was only aware of the state of the manifestations of his soul. The true essence of his soul, however, remained beyond his ken. He could not know if it was in need of purification. Thus was he afraid. [The Rebbe has pointed out that it was only at the very last moment of his life that he gave this any thought. Throughout his life he was too busy fulfilling the mission of his existence, that he never had the chance to ponder the state of his own soul. See Lo tihyeh meshakela 5712]

But just as the Holy One can be "known", at least in yediat hametziut, through the ten sefirot, so too the soul, which is created in the image of G‑d, can be known through its ten attributes, which mirror the ten sefirot.

In addition, there are five gates to the soul: speech, thought, emotion, intellect, and desire. When these five gates are guarded, when you place "judges and officers at all your gates that G‑d gives you", this leads to the door of the soul and allows one to access the essence of the soul, which is beyond conception. And it is through connecting with the essence of one's soul that one connects with the essence of G‑d.

Although the person judges each gate and sets down the law in regard to it - what is to be allowed in and what is to be cast out, what is to be welcomed and what is to be rejected - there is also a need for officers who enforce the law. For what is decided by the brain and heart to be proper and right does not always translate itself into action. This is the job of the "officers", to enact on a practical level the decision made by the higher faculties.

This, then, is the meaning of the verse "Judges and officers shall you place in all your gates that G‑d your G‑d gives you.…" This verse is a commentary on the ability of the finite to commune with the infinite, which is indeed possible through the "gates" that "G‑d gives you" - the bridges that He provides for you to grasp Him through hashara, i.e. the ability to "know" Him through yediat hametziut and through His manifestation in the ten sefirot - and through the upkeep and development of the five gates to the soul.

Translated and adapted from Sefer Hamaamarim 5681, Shoftim, pp. 302-323

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