Have you ever been asked the question “if you knew you were going to be marooned on a desert island, what five books would you take with you?” One of mine would be Rabbi Alan Lew’s This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. I reread that book each year at this season.
Here’s a short quote from that book, talking about this week’s Torah portion:
Parashat Shoftim… begins with what seems like a simple prescription for the establishment of a judicial system: ‘Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.’ But the great Hasidic Torah commentary, the Iturey Torah, read this passage as an imperative of a very different sort — an imperative for a kind of inner mindfulness. According to the Iturey Torah, there are seven gates — seven windows — to the soul: the two eyes, the two ears, the two nostrils, and the mouth. Everything that passes into our consciousness must enter through one of these gates.
On a deep level, says Rabbi Lew, this passage has nothing to do with establishing a system of judges and courts. Rather, it’s about mindfulness and teshuvah, that existential turning that’s at the heart of this season.
‘Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.’ We can’t always control what we see. Sometimes we see things we wish we could un-see, or hear things we wish we could un-hear. But we can make choices about how we respond to what we see and hear. Maybe there’s political rhetoric this election season that upsets me, or someone in my sphere who’s acting unfairly or unkindly. I can’t un-hear the offending words or un-see the offending deeds, but I can choose what qualities I want to cultivate in myself as I respond to what the world presents to me.
I can choose to cultivate lovingkindness. I can choose to cultivate good boundaries and to say “enough is enough.” I can choose to cultivate the right balance between love and judgement. This Shabbat offers an opportunity to do precisely that.
Shabbat Shoftim — “Shabbat of Judges” — always falls during the first or second week of Elul. The moon of Elul is waxing now, and when it wanes we’ll convene for Rosh Hashanah. The liturgy for that day describes God as the Judge before whom all living beings must appear. On that day the book of our lives will read from itself, reflecting the lines we’ve written over the last year with our words and our deeds, our actions and our inactions.
But before we get to Rosh Hashanah, we have three more weeks of Elul to go. Our sages read the name of this month as an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי, “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” Before we stand before God as Judge, we have the opportunity to experience God as Beloved. Tradition teaches that this month God isn’t in the Palace on high, but “in the fields” with us. We get to with the Source of All in the beautiful late summer meadows, talking with God the way one might talk to one’s most dearly beloved friend.
Because here’s the thing about your most dearly beloved friend, the person who loves you most in all the world: that person notices your flaws, sure, but they see your flaws in the context of your good sides. Your best qualities. Imagine someone who loves you so dearly that they can’t help seeing everything that’s best about you, every time they look at you. During this month of Elul, that’s how God sees each of us. That’s the backdrop against which the judgements of Rosh Hashanah take place.
This week’s Torah portion instructs us to pursue justice, and it doesn’t seem to be speaking only to those who do the work of justice for a living. This work falls to all of us. Pursuing justice, and engaging in the work of judgement and discernment, is on all of us. Where are we living up to our highest selves, and where are we falling short of our ideals? As the Iturey Torah asks, what do we want to let in through the gates of the senses, and what words and deeds and facial expressions do we want to let out?
And it’s also our task to remember that we emulate God not only when we judge ourselves and others, but also when we cultivate love for ourselves and others — in fact we are most like God davka (precisely) when we do both. Shabbat Shoftim always falls during this month of Elul, during this month of loving and being loved. The challenge is finding the right balance of love and judgement in every moment. It can be tempting to lean toward one and neglect the other, but that’s a temptation we need to resist.
Balancing love and judgement is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. If I bring nothing but chesed, abundant lovingkindness, to myself and to the world around me I am liable to spoil my child, turn a blind eye to unfairness, and let myself or others off the hook when I should be expecting better. If I bring nothing but gevurah, boundaries and strength, I am liable to be overly strict, to cross the line from discerning to judgmental, and castigate myself and others when I should be responding with gentleness.
May this Shabbat Shoftim, this Shabbat of Judges, inspire us to balance our lovingkindness with good judgement, and to infuse our discernment with love.
This is the d’var Torah Rabbi Rachel offered on Friday night at CBI. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)