Today’s Torah portion, Shoftim, is always read on the 1st Shabbos of the month of Elul—the month before Rosh Hashanah. The connection is obvious. Shoftim means “judges,” and we are judged on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Torah portion begins: Shoftim v’shotrim titeyn l’cha b’chol sh’arecha, “Judges and officers shall you set for yourself in all your gates.”
Now the word l’cha, “for yourself,” is singular. But this command is given to the whole people—not just to individuals. According to one interpretation, the Torah writes the singular, “yourself,” in order to teach us the important ethical lesson that one should judge others the way one judges one’s self. How does one judge oneself? With chesed, with understanding, with sympathy and with compassion. When we do something wrong, don’t we take into account all the extenuating circumstances, saying, “Yes, of course, what I did, it was wrong. But I was upset at the time. Someone made me very angry. I was feeling very hurt. I was under a lot of pressure.”
When judging ourselves we take all the little factors and reasons into consideration which explain why we acted as we did. Yet sadly, rarely, do we give that same benefit of understanding to others. But as the High Holidays draw near—when we will ourselves stand before Gd in judgment and will ask for His forgiveness—we learn from Today’s Torah portion that we must judge others by that same measure of understanding that we give ourselves and thus forgive them as well. For Gd will only forgive us as we forgive each other.
On the other hand, we must not take personally how others judge us—especially regarding the State of Israel. Yesterday, the UN Palmer Report on Israel’s boarding the Mavi Marmara flagship and 5 other ships that tried to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza last year was released. All the headlines quoted one line in the report calling Israel’s behavior “excessive and unreasonable.” That was the headlines. But what the report actually said was that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza is legal and appropriate. In its opening paragraphs it made clear that: Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza…and, the naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law.
The report is also critical of the flotilla organizers, asserting that they “acted recklessly in attempting to breach the naval blockade.” It said that while the majority of the hundreds of people aboard the 6 vessels had no violent intention, the same could not be said of IHH—the Turkish group that organized the flotilla. It said: “There exist serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organizers, particularly IHH.” But the headlines negatively judged Israel referring to that one line calling her actions “excessive and unreasonable.”
This morning I read in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution that Turkey is now expelling the Israel ambassador because Israel refuses to apologize for this incident. Then I read in the magazine The Week how Turkey has bombed the Kurds in Iraq killing many. When asked why, Turkey said it was in response to Kurdish attacks and incursions into Turkey. Well, doesn’t the lobbing of 12,000 missiles from Gaza into Israel constitute reason enough to block such a flotilla?
Achad Haam, Asher Ginzburg, at the turn of the 20th century wrote an article about the Blood Libel accusation against the Jews called, Chatzi Nechama, “Half a Consolation.” The half consolation was that this was one accusation even a Jew could not believe against himself. Too many of us take to heart the world’s criticism of the Jews. We must not internalize other’s unreasonably negative judgments about ourselves—thinking perhaps they are right.
And the other side of the coin of judgment is that in our personal lives we heed the advice of the Talmud (Avot 2:5) where it implores us: Al tadin et chaveyrcha ad shetagi-a bimkomo, “Don’t judge your fellow until you have reached his place.” We should refrain from judging what others do because we can never know the complete context of anything anyone ever does.
I’d like to illustrate this by telling you about my aunt Ruthy, aleha hashalom. My aunt Ruthy was a great public defender, yet she never went to law school, was never in a court room and she never practiced law. But she was a wonderful public defender, because she always defended people—the people of her family, of her shule and community.
For example, she defended my Aunt Irene. You see, my grandmother did not like my Aunt Irene. Why? Because Irene wasn’t at all religious. When my father’s brother, Uncle Seymour, married my Aunt Irene, they didn’t make their home kosher. And my grandmother was furious. And because of that there were many fights between my Uncle Seymour and my grandmother.
But my aunt Ruthy defended my Aunt Irene. She would say to my grandmother. “You have to understand. Irene didn’t come from a kosher home. To us, it’s important. But to her, it’s all new. Don’t be so harsh. Give her some time. Maybe in a few years, she’ll realize that it’s not so difficult, or so expensive to keep kosher.” That was my aunt Ruthy.
And she defended my Uncle Albi too. Now my uncle Albi did keep kosher, in fact, he was a kosher butcher. He was married to my father’s sister, Aunt Fanny. But my grandmother also wasn’t so crazy about my Uncle Albi. Why? Well, he didn’t have much of an education. And he wasn’t so smart. And he talked a lot—well, more like non-stop—and he got on my grandmother’s nerves.
But my aunt Ruthy would say: “You know what? OK, maybe he’s not so smart. But he’s kind. If people can’t afford to pay the full price of meat, he takes less. And maybe he talks a lot, but what he says isn’t mean. He’s a nice man. He’s an honest man. These things are far more important.”
And, it wasn’t just family members that my aunt Ruthy would defend. For example, I remember she always defended her rabbi. My aunt Ruthy was the president of sisterhood for a long time. She belonged to a traditional Conservative congregation in Brooklyn. Like all synagogues except this one, some people like the rabbi and some people don’t. But in her shule some people thought the rabbi was good and some people thought they could do better. But she would always defend the rabbi: “He’s a human being. Don’t expect perfection. Not even Moses was perfect. The rabbi has an ill wife. Have some rachmanus, some compassion and understanding.”
That’s how my aunt Ruthy was. She was a great public defender—always giving people the benefit of the doubt; always looking at the good side of a person, never the bad. I never heard a bad word leave her lips about anyone.
My friends, we all judge one another—and often we do so rather harshly and unsympathetically. Although the Torah today commands us to appoint judges, what I think we need more of are public defenders, more people of understanding and sympathy. We need more people like my late aunt Ruthy, aleha ha’shalom—people who judge others the very way that they themselves would want to be judged; with chesed—compassion, understanding and kindness.
And this too is what the great Chassidic master, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, meant when he interpreted the 2nd part of the opening verse in today’s Torah portion: v’shsaftu et haam mishpat tzedek, “and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.” “No”, Levi Yitzchak said, “don’t read mishpat zedeck as ‘righteous judgment,’ read instead mishpat, ‘a judgment,’ of tzedek or tzedaka, ‘charity,’” a judgment of chesed, kindness.” Shoftim v’shotrim titeyn l’cha, “Judge others as you would judge yourself.” This is the challenge posed by today's Torah reading on this 1st Shabbat of the month of Elul before Rosh Hashanah.
Let us, like my late aunt Ruthy, open your hearts to understand and to forgive one another, so that Gd may forgive us and bless us in the coming year. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis