August 19, 2020  |  Vol. 16

Parshat Shoftim: Being Just in Our Judgements

This week’s portion, Parshat Shoftim, relates to themes of justice and truth. These themes are eternally relevant, of course, but they hold special significance at the moment, in a time of heightened tension and confusion. Why? Because we are all looking for answers right now, and often that search for an explanation changes into a hunt for someone to blame. It’s no surprise that we are bewildered: all day we receive an onslaught of conflicting messages. This is where the portion intervenes to guide us. Its message this week -- that we should put judges in front of our gate -- reminds us that our perspective is limited to our own five senses. For that reason, we must be as watchful as a guard regarding what goes in and out from this gate. Otherwise it will only become more difficult to determine what is true and just.

What action can we take to guard this “gate,” which is in fact a metaphor for how we perceive life? For a start, we can be more intentional and conscious about what we take in and transmit through it. We should, for example, be vigilant about what we eat. The mouth is part of our gate, and so care should be taken not only around what we say -- what leaves through it  -- but also what we permit to enter it. Our ears are also part of our gate. If we allow ourselves to sit and listen while someone talks badly of other people, this negativity enters our gate, and it will surely cloud our clarity when it comes to truth and justice. Naturally, our media consumption becomes relevant here. What do we let in through our ears and eyes that may in fact be hurting our vision?

Perhaps through our gate we have witnessed an act of injustice. This could represent a moment of moral dilemma as we decide whether to act on or ignore what we’ve seen. The impact of our decision is likely to be considerable, both for ourselves and others, and so understandably the situation gives us pause. However, the Torah states unequivocally that yes, we need to speak up.  If we have been placed there to witness this act, then we have been called upon by the Divine to testify about it. This way the situation can be subjected to justice. To be a witness is an important role as it helps provide clarity for others, and so it’s a responsibility that can’t be ignored. Although this work is often hard to do, the Torah is clear that it is correct to do, because this is how we help to deliver justice.

Remaining humble and open as always, we should also consider other motivations that the Divine has for allocating us this role of “witness.” We may have been placed there to learn too; perhaps reflecting on this injustice will lead us to realize a wrong action of our own. With this in mind, we should always refrain from being judgemental where possible. Remember, when we are judged, we are judged on the same terms by which we have previously judged others. What does that mean? That, for example, if we harshly judge someone for lying, we will be assessed by the same criteria when we speak. Being excessively critical, then, simply serves to spotlight ourselves. In other words, consider whether you want to be measured against your own strict standards.

It’s important to read Parshat Shoftim during the month of Virgo, which, according to Rabbi Isaac Luria, is a time to prepare for Rosh Hashana. It reminds us before we ourselves are judged that we must be guarding our gate in preparation. This is how we maintain the required clarity and vision to evaluate our own actions with honesty and fairness. Through staying humble, resisting the urge to judge others, and speaking up when we are called upon, we can manifest truth and justice in our daily lives. This is a good moment to wish everyone a happy New Year and Shaná Tová. Great things are coming soon. In the meantime, I wish you safety, health, and unity. Thank you.

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