The following is the text of the dvar torah I gave this past Shabbat at Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in New York City. Its written to be heard, so might read a little weird – but the ideas are there. Enjoy!
It is Elul, the time leading up to the Yamim Noraim, the HHD. We are tasked with Teshuvah, with a return to our inner selves, with the mission to seek out who we really have been in this past year, and to judge ourselves – before Yom Kippur, when God and only God is judge. But Judgement is a complicated word. It stirs up emotions. It makes us uncomfortable. We use it in so many ways. When I first think about judgement, it is personal, it is about how I make decisions, about who I am and how I act. But it is also about others. It is about how we approach those around us, and how they approach us. We act, and when others see what we do or hear what we say, they judge us. Its human nature I think, its just how we are wired to behave. Of course, that does not mean we have to like it… I cant tell you how many times someone else has told me I did something wrong and I have said “don’t judge me.” But deep down I always know the truth, that I have no right to say that. No right because I judge others constantly, no right because we are all judging each other all the time. And in any case, its not really what I mean. When I say “don’t judge me” what I really mean is “judge me fairly” “consider my position, my experience” “listen to me before deciding about me.” I know that it is by my judgement that I am judged, and I want others to understand where that judgement came from.
יח שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ;
you shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes in all the settlements that adonoi your god is giving you
וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק.
and they shall judge the people with due justice
don’t judge unfairly
לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים;
don’t show partiality
and don’t take a bribe
—כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.
because bribes blind the eyes of the wise and distort the words of the just.
These verses speak of appointing judges and officers, of their responsibilities, of the potential pitfalls, and of proper action. The Torah understands that there are times when judgement must be formalized, that a system needs be put in place where respected members of the community can apply their good judgement for the welfare of the whole society. In the desert God had served as ultimate Judge, but as the people enter the land, and begin to construct their community God recognizes the need to step back and let the people figure some things out on their own. They need to be able to develop good judgement. Understand, God gave us the ability to judge, and wants us to use it.
The following is from Midrash Rabbah on Devarim:
ר’ אליעזר אומר: במקום שיש דִּין אין דַּיָּן, ובמקום שאין דִּין יש דַּיָּן.
R’ Eliezer says: In a place where there is judging, there will be no further judging, and in a place where there is no judging there will be further judging
And what is meant by this?
אלא, אמר ר’ אליעזר: אם נעשה הדין למטה אין הדין נעשה למעלה. ואם לא נעשה הדין למטה הדין נעשה למעלה
Rather, R’ Eliezer says: If justice is carried out below (on earth), there will be no further judging above (by God), and if there is no judging (no justice) below, there will be further judging above.
The midrash teaches that the power is in our hands to mold and create the world the way we want it, that Hashem has left it in our hands and sits in judgement of our actions only when we shirk our responsibility. Of course, we all too often do drop the ball. And this is why during the month of elul and during the yamim noraim we speak so much of divine judgement, because we know that in a world like ours, where so much feels broken, where judgement seems so sorely lacking, where we open the newspaper daily and read of stories endless litigation, of judges who pursue personal or political agendas, of horrific crimes and compassionless retributive punishment – we all know that the collective of humanity is not using our best judgement. And it is by our judgement that we are judged.
And so I want to turn our attention back, back to those first three verses, back to the ikar, back to the fundamental basis of the parasha. Everybody knows that the torah does not speak by accident. The parasha speaks of judgement before speaking of justice, and that is no accident. The judge is a symbol, a living breathing manifestation of all of our hopes and expectations for our society. We trust judges to exemplify a kind of judgement that we can respect. We put our faith in them to be the living embodiment of the command of this parasha. And when we put our faith in the judgement of these people to manifest justice, we buy into the system because it represents our highest ideals and expectations. And when, through the actions of judges that system lives up to the expectations we have set, our faith is rewarded – we see our potential actualized and believe in ourselves. And our actions change accordingly.
There is a story of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rebbe of Apta
A case once came before him, when he served as a rabbinical judge in the town of Kosbolov. While the case was underway, he suddenly felt inclined in favor of one of the litigants, though his initial leaning was against him. This sudden change roused his suspicion that something was amiss, and he ordered a halt to the proceedings. Upon investigation, he discovered that someone had slipped a packet of money into his coat.
Said the Rebbe of Apta: Although I was totally unaware of the attempt to bribe me, my judgment was affected. How true are the words of the Torah that “bribery blinds the eyes of the wise”!
Bribery comes in many forms, and always impairs judgement. Sometimes it is with money, like in the story of the Apta – but sometimes it goes deeper. Sometimes we want to be blinded, and so we enable it. Sometimes we bribe ourselves to cloud our judgement, but we forget that it is our judgement by which we are judged.
שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ
Rav Chayim Vital, the protégé of the holy Arizal (R. Isaac Luria) points out that this verse is written in a very peculiar way. It uses the word לך Lecha, to you, in the singular – we would have expected לכם lechem, the plural. Vital notes that this use of the singular means that each of these commandments that seem to be directed only to the judges, apply to us as well. We all must strive to be fair, to show no favorites, to avoid bribery.
Based on this understanding, the Shelah Hakodesh focuses in on the word שְׁעָרֶיךָ which though translated in the eitz chayim as settlements, literally means ‘gates’. Our gates. He says that there are 7 gates to the soul. 2 ears, 2 eyes, 2 nostrils, and the mouth – these are the passages through with external impressions travel through to the depth of the individual. Our judgement is based on what we let into our gates, and we are judged by what we allow to leave through them. The Torah says: “Appoint for yourself judges and officers in all your gates.” Meaning that we should pay close attention, that we must make certain that all kinds of terrible things are not able to pass through these gates. That our ears should not hear harmful things, our eyes should not see evil in others when it is not there, and our mouths should not speak malicious gossip – lest our judgement become impaired. Because it is by our judgement that we are judged.
But it is so hard. How can I, how can we possibly set up these judges? How can we judge everything we see, hear, smell, say… It just seems impossible. When I first began to think about this, I was frozen, shaken, for a moment – heartbroken. I had self doubt, I didn’t think I could do it. All those moments when I used poor judgement while knowing it was poor, all those times I judged others without ever engaging them to discover their truths, all of these failure came flooding back. I did not even know how to start. I did what I always do when trying to turn my brain off – I turned on the Facebook… But I was blessed. I followed a link and read a wonderful story from Imam Khlid Latif:
Last night I tried to give some food to a homeless man after we had broken our fast following sunset. The man said thanks, but didn’t take it and continued to ask passers-by for money. I wondered to myself why a homeless person wouldn’t want free food. Was he really not homeless? Was he doing drugs? Then I realized the only person who can answer the question is him. So I asked him. When I asked him why he didn’t want the food, he said that he has no place to keep it. He had four sandwiches in a plastic bag that would stay good for a couple of days and taking more food right now would just be excess. Why would he take something knowing that he might not be able to eat it? Then it would just go to waste. He then asked God to bless me and I, in turn, asked God to bless him for teaching me to not assume.
The Imam realized he was judging another without the benefit of the doubt, and then he acted on this realization. He checked himself, he pushed through all sorts of barriers – personal and societal – and discovered the truth. He was a guardian of his gates, a true judge. I felt inspired.
But this is just one story about one man, about one moment. Surely he can not act this way all the time, surely we cant, surely the Torah is not commanding us to be perfect, to always use good judgement. And what about those times when its unclear what the right thing to do is? How can we know? The torah’s directives here, difficult in their simplicity, demand a great deal. They demand because Hashem knows who we are, knows what we do, and knows what we are capable of. The Torah comes to show us the best of what we can do, and commands us to use good judgement, to judge fairly. Because the Torah understands how we work, understands that it is by our judgement that we are judged. Like in this case, many mitzvoth are difficult, challenging, demanding a seemingly unattainable perfection. But i promise, the torah does not command us to do anything that we are not capable of doing… the torah tells us to strive to grow, to always expect more from ourselves, to live up to our extraordinary potential. We all have the ability to judge fairly, not to play favorites, not to allow ourselves to be bribed – even if the bribe is coming from within. Remember that it is by our judgement that we are judged. We can all be the Apta, we can all be Imam Latif. The Torah says we can do anything, but the choice is ours.
Elul is upon us, the time of teshuvah is here. It is time to return to ourselves, to dig deep, to work had to become the person we know we should – and can – be. May this intense time bring all of us closer, closer to our true selves. May we gain clarity of judgement and become a people who judge others with kindness and compassion, who listen to one another, who see each other’s inherent potential. May we, together, create a world where everyone’s potential is actualized, where there is no need for the judgement from above – because there is true, clear judgement right here.