Parshat Shoftim: Seeking Answers August 18, 2023

Deuteronomy 17:8

רִיבֹ֖ת בִּשְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ וְקַמְתָּ֣ וְעָלִ֔יתָ אֶ֨ל־הַמָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְחַ֛ר יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ בּֽוֹ׃

If a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault, matters of dispute in your courts, you shall promptly go to the place that the Lord your God will have chosen.

A story is told of a father and son going to shul. Every Shabbat the father notices his son slip out of shul and walk to the woods behind the synagogue. After a few weeks, the father asks his son the reason he keeps leaving to walk in the woods. “I go there to pray,” says his son. “But that’s why we come to shul! Isn’t God the same here as in the woods? Why not just pray here?” The son replies, “God may be the same everywhere, but I am not.”

The space we are in has a remarkable influence on us. Perhaps that’s why the first directive for an individual who is confused as to the right way to proceed is not to find a sage, but to go to Jerusalem. There they appear before the high court. Yet in the verse, the Torah does not give prominence to the court, but to the place. Perhaps just being in Jerusalem will provide some clarity for the situation. 

There are people who we rely on for advice, but we shouldn’t forget that there are places we can rely on too. We are different in different spaces, and think differently when we enter a new environment. In shul we think differently than in our homes, in the woods our mind is open differently than when we are in a city. For the questions we face, we may need to take ourselves somewhere different to find the answer, and there we might find that the answer was closer than we thought.