Just guardians at the gate
Shoftim | Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
Throughout most of history, human beings have lived in fear of what’s outside their gates. Cities were fortified with stone walls, the entrances sealed with impenetrable doors. Only friends got in; it was assumed that strangers at the gate meant trouble.
We’ve come a long way from that; most cities sport “Welcome” signs and friendly websites to entice new residents. But still, many people live in “gated communities” where guards are paid to treat strangers as potential threats.
And sometimes for good reason. Some outsiders to guard against: terrorists, obviously, but also sociopaths and even petty criminals.
But the Torah has another view of “gates.” Instead of armed guards, our sedra commands us to position “judges and officials at all your gates.” Ibn Ezra refers us to the Judean king Jehoshaphat whom the Bible records as establishing judges throughout his realm (II Chronicles, 19) — deliberately following the advice from this week’s reading, according to Rashi. As Metsudat David understands it, the king strolled among the people and, noting the lack of justice, appointed judges to stand at the gates.
Arriving strangers would thereby meet judges, not gatekeepers, encountering justice, not rejection. The very term “gatekeepers” implies strangers can be a problem; “judges,” by contrast, are neutral about newcomers and rely on legal procedure to decide what to do with them. Some will indeed be sent away, but only after due process and evidential cause. On the whole, strangers at our gates are presumed to be seeking (and will be offered) justice for themselves and the opportunity to flourish — like the people already inside.
The Torah’s model became normative for Jewish thinking. The three tractates of the Talmud dealing with civil and criminal law are called Bava Kamma, Bava M’tsi’a, and Bava Batra — The “First, Middle, and Final Gate” — because “gates” became associated with the place where justice prevails.
Justice need not be reserved for those of us lucky enough to live within the gates. The Jewish ideal is to apply justice universally. Instead of locked bastions that preserve the good life for an elite few, gates are openings through which justice pours.
These considerations speak powerfully to the issue of immigration into our country. Where would Jews be if America’s gates had been closed from 1881 to 1924? To America’s everlasting shame, those gates slammed shut in Hitler’s time. It is no coincidence that the poem of welcome inscribed on the Statue of Liberty’s base was composed by a Jew.
We might remember another commandment about gates: to place mezuzot there. Instead of barbed-wire fences, our gates feature the guarantee that the one God of all humanity is present among us.
Gates inevitably bear implicit messages. Some say, “Keep out. Beware of dogs, police, and officials ready to strike you down.” Others say, “Come in as long as you respect the rule of justice; watch for judges and officials who will help you contribute to what we have. For what we have — the presence of justice and of God — is eminently shareable.