You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities (Devarim 16:18)
The parashah opens with a command seemingly regarding the public. The nation must set up a legal system that has both judges to decide the law and police to enforce the statutes of the Torah. However, the use of the word “lecha — for you” is in singular form, indicating an individual, not a population. The next statement is “You shall not pervert judgment, you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe…” (16:19), which seems to address the judges, not an individual. The verses beg explanation.
Our commentators teach that in the month of Elul, the parashiyot we read publicly all contain hints to the teshuvah process. Some say that here the Torah is addressing the individual and instructing each person to set up guards on the gates of the city (one’s body) — the eyes, the ears, and the mouth — that expose a person to the outside world of temptation and sin. That would explain the Torah addressing the instruction to a singular “you.”
The Midrash (Mishlei 6:6-8)quotes: “Go to the ant, lazy one; consider her ways and be wise; which, having no guide, overseer or ruler, provides her bread in the summer and gathers her food in the harvest.” The example of a “wise” creature that has a three-level abode and lives in the more comfortable and secure middle level; a creature that only lives six months and stores food that would last years; a creature that is industrious, is a perfect model for a naturally lazy human who would fall prey to the crafty evil inclination. The use of the singular “you” would then mean for your benefit.
The Gemara (Chullin 57b) tells of Rabi Shimon ben Chalafta who wanted to study the ways of the ants. He went out in the heat of Tammuz and found an ant colony. He draped his coat above the hole, creating a cool, shady environment. One creature came out and felt the cool air. The ant went back into the hole and informed the residents of the colony that it was shady and cool and that they could now venture outside. When they all were outside the Rav removed his coat, exposing the creatures to the hot sun. The ants attacked the one that delivered the false message. Rabi Shimon learned that ants do not tolerate falsehood.
It is said that Harav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, defender of Israel, once went from house to house begging for a piece of chametz bread on Pesach! At every house the residents became angry at his request and almost struck him with blows. Rejected by all the Jews, he then went to the gentile merchants and asked to buy contraband merchandise. Each of them took him to a secret room where he was offered goods for which no taxes and duties were paid to the government.
Harav Levi Yitzchak went out onto the street, raised his hands heavenward and said, “Master of the Universe, how many tax collectors and customs officials are in this city to prevent non-payment, and yet every corner of the city is full of illegal merchandise? In contrast, Your holy people have no enforcers inspecting them and they willingly keep Your commandments. The Midrash, similarly, teaches that we are compared to the ant that works diligently and honestly with no one forcing it to do so.
This results in a major difference between the judicial system imposed by the Torah on the Children of Noach and the laws set before our people. The purpose of the gentile legal system is to prevent anarchy. As it says in Pirkei Avot (3:2): “Pray for peace in the kingdom, for if not for fear of it, one would kill one’s fellow.” This is a lesson learned from the ant.
The word “lecha” is used here to indicate that the laws should become part of you! The judge and the enforcer should become second nature to you. Whether in public or in the inner sanctum of several rooms, you won’t do wrong because it’s not your nature. You cannot violate the Torah, just like the ant cannot steal or lie. It’s just not you!