We have begun the month of Elul and I can feel the spiritual pressure building already. Traditional Jews go to synagogue every day to pray, and every day they hear the sound of the shofar reminding them that this entire month leading up to Rosh Hashana and the ushering in of the most sacred season of the year is supposed to be a time of spiritual preparation. It begins the process of Heshbon hanefesh, “taking an accounting of your soul,” as each day brings us closer to the beginning of the New Year and days of awe.
I suppose that among liberal Jews, it is only rabbis and cantors and Jewish professionals who are aware that this is the season of spiritual preparation, review, and reflection. Perhaps the reason that the first Torah portion of this Elul month of introspection is Shoftim, is because Shoftim means “judges” and the entire portion reminds us of the importance, and power, and spiritual obligation to engage in self-examination and judgement this month.
If translated literally, the beginning of the portion says, “Judges and officers shall you make to you in all your gates…” The rabbis have always noticed that the words “to you” are odd and superfluous in the sentence, and therefore saw them as the most important words in the passage. The Torah specifically says, “shall you make to you” when it comes to establishing judges and officers so that we will remember that before we presume to pass judgment on others, we must be willing to judge ourselves.
That’s why the Talmud says, “Correct yourself and then correct your fellow human beings.” (Bava Metzia 107b) Most of the time it is a human characteristic to judge others by what they do and ourselves by what we intend to do. It is so easy to deflect blame and responsibility for our mistakes and weaknesses and errors onto others, and it seems so hard these days to find people willing to accept total responsibility for themselves and their actions.
Rabbi Lewart and I were leading a discussion this evening with a group of families who are about to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah in the next two months. As we spoke of the meaning and symbolism of this special Jewish “coming of age” ritual, I looked around the sanctuary and thought of how little chronological age really had to do with being an adult. I was reminded that perhaps the best definition of what it means to really be an adult, is that you can consider yourself an adult the day you are willing to accept total responsibility for your life and actions.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that still embraces the “twinkie defense” to justify murder and being abused as a child to rationalize being an abuser as an adult. When this week’s Torah portion goes on two verses later to boldly declare, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” it is stating one of the fundamental guiding principles of Judaism itself.
The rabbis saw this emphatic repetition of the word, “justice,” and concluded that the Torah said “justice, justice,” to teach us that in the words of Rabbi Simhah Bunam, a famous and revered Hasidic rebbe, “In our pursuit of just and righteous ends, our means must be just as well.”
Perhaps the repetition is another way of reminding us that for judgment to truly be just, it must be meted out the same each time, over and over again with consistency, and objectivity, and fairness. For example, to treat one person as guilty and another as innocent even if they commit the same act simply because one is rich and the other poor, or one is poor and the other rich is to ignore the lesson of “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
The expectation of justice is fundamental to our sense of security within a democratic society. We presume that justice will win out in the end. We presume that if we have grievances about our lives or the government or our work or education, that someone will listen and take us seriously and ultimately do the right thing.
In this way, the repetition of “justice, justice” in the Torah portion teaches us that when we judge our own lives, we need to be kind, and tender, and nurturing. We must not judge our past behavior by our current standards, but be “just” by evaluating ourselves by the standards we accepted at the time, and “just” again by evaluating ourselves as we are today.
“Justice, justice,” is a challenge to have the courage to judge others with an open mind and an open heart. The first “justice” teaches us to treat others fairly, and the second “justice” teaches us to treat ourselves fairly as well, removing unrealistic expectations from our judgments of our own lives. In all these ways we can use this week’s portion as a perfect beginning of this Elul month of introspection and of self-examination, so that by the time Rosh Hashana rolls around, we have identified our own failures of the past and are ready to make a new commitment to creating a society based on righteousness and justice for all.