This is the 1st Shabbos in the month of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah. It’s no small coincidence that we always read on this Shabbos the parsha of Shoftim which begins (Deut. 16:18): Softim v’shotrim titeyn lecha, “Judges and police officers shall you appoint.” The Kotzker Rebbe takes special note that the word “you” in this verse—l’cha—is in the singular and, therefore, he explained that this teaches us that each of us should judge and police ourselves, trying to keep ourselves on the right track. That’s what we’re supposed to do this month as we prepare for the High Holy Days—judge and police ourselves.
Does that mean we shouldn’t judge others? After all, Imitatio Dei, “Imitating Gd,” is a major principle in Judaism. If Gd judges and punishes people, shouldn’t it be OK for us to do the same? Let’s take this a bit further: the Torah says that Gd takes revenge. Shouldn’t it then be OK for us as well? However, the Torah (Lev. 19:18) specifically commands us: Lo tikom v’lo titor, “You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge.” Many times in the Bible it seems that Gd behaves as if he’s angry. Why can’t we behave with anger if Gd does?
Clearly Gd never meant for us to imitate Him in this way, and so the sages teach that the mitzvah of imitating Gdis given to urge us to do acts of chesed, of love and kindness—not to judge others, or take revenge or act with anger. So the message of the juxtaposition of this parsha of Shoftim, “Judges,” as the 1st parsha in the month before Rosh Hashanah is: Don’t judge others! It’s not your place, your position or your role in the world to behave as a judge. If you are a judge in court, a teacher or a parent, then it may be part of your job. But otherwise, who asked you? You may not like what someone does; but why judge? How will it benefit you? It will only eat away at you and bring you down.
We Jews know what it’s like to be judged and to be judged unfairly. Time and again the world seems to have a double standard of judging when it comes to Jews. Thousands upon thousands are slaughtered by ISIS and the government of Syria and there is hardly a peep heard. But when Israel kills a few hundred trying to defend itself from thousands of Hamas rockets, the world is up in arms. Israel is falsely accused of genocide—a charge made, I’m certain, to assuage the guilt of the Holocaust. But almost nothing is said about the ISIS who systematically destroys whole ancient ethnic and religious communities.
Britain is one of the least anti-Semitic European countries and yet, anti-Semitism is surging across Britain, according to the Daily Express. In the past few months there was a huge spike in vandalism of Jewish businesses and swastikas were painted on Jewish graves. The press, following protestors’ posters, denounced Israel as “bloodthirsty baby-killers” while silent about Hamas rockets that kill Jewish children or how Hamas killed 160 of its own children that helped them build their terrorist tunnels so they would not tell anyone where they are. It’s so reminiscent of the old blood-libel accusing Jews of killing Christian children to use their blood to bake matzah.
Anti-Semitic rhetoric is now mainstream on the BBC, especially in its Gaza reporting. Parliamentarian George Galloway recently declared the city of Bradford to be “an Israel-free zone,” meaning “Jew-free.” A London theatre recently refused to host the annual Jewish Film Festival that it had hosted for 8 years. Last week in London, Sainsbury’s grocery store removed all kosher food items from its shelves “in an attempt to placate anti-Israel protesters.” “Imagine,” says Brendan O’Neil in the Daily Telegraph, “if a Sainsbury’s manager suggested that the best way to deal with a racist in his store was to remove the black employees who were offending him?” Yes, we Jews know what it’s like to be judged and to be judged unfairly.
In America, there’s a lot of unfair judging going on as well these days—especially in Ferguson, Missouri. My colleague, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, reminded me that the name “Ferguson” while not distinctly Jewish, is part of an old folk story of our people:
Yehudah Tzvi Windweher arrived at Ellis Island sometime in the early 20th century and asked his friend, “What would be a good American name for me? I want it to be Jewish, but more American.”
His friend replied, “Sam Cohen, that’s a good American Jewish name.”
Yehudah Tzvi began his long walk up a massive flight of steps leading to the immigration office. With each step he said, “Sam Cohen, Sam Cohen” in an earnest effort to learn his new name.
When he finished carrying his luggage to the top of the flight, he was winded and tired. A large immigration officer caught Yehuda Tzvi off guard when he said in a booming voice, “NAME?”
A flustered Yehudah Tzvi replied Shoyn fargesin (“I already forgot” in Yiddish).
The immigration officer replied “Sean Ferguson, welcome the United States of America!”
What happened in Ferguson this summer has happened before in Watts, in Newark, in Detroit and Miami. Michael Brown now joins a well-known list including Rodney King, Trayvon Martin and others. It’s all happened before. You would think we would have learned by now not to rush to judgment before we know all the facts, but shoyn fargesin…we conveniently forget.
Oftentimes we make the mistake of judging right and wrong by the color of one’s skin. A majority of African Americans feel a great injustice was done to Michael Brown. A majority of white Americans see it differently. And you know why, because each community sees the same facts from their own perspective. For whites, it’s easy to believe that a black man was violent and was a threat to a police officer’s life—especially since he had just robbed a convenience store. For blacks, it was easy to believe that a police officer would have acted differently if Mr. Brown had been white—especially since he was shot 6 times. We judge from our own perspective. We see what we want to see and we bring our own personal biases to light.
And what makes it wrong to judge now in this case is that we simply do not know all the facts! The Torah not only teaches us to appoint judges, it commands us (Deut. 16:18): v’shsaftu et haam mishpat tzedek, “and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.” The obvious meaning is that we must judge in a just and righteous way, which means we must have all the facts and then try to look at what happened objectively.
I don’t know what happened when Michael Brown was shot by policeman Darren Wilson. No one does except the very few who were actually there. I say to the likes of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and all the right-wing pundits who have already decided what happened, we must not allow our prejudices to color our judgment. We must be patient and wait for the facts to be revealed. Otherwise we will only stir up unnecessary hatred and unrest.
The great Chassidic master, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, in commenting upon this passage said: “Don’t read mishpat zedek as ‘righteous judgment,’ read instead mishpat, ‘a judgment,’ of tzedek or tzedaka, ‘charity,’” a judgment of chesed, kindness.” Judge others as you would judge yourself—with charity—and give everyone the benefit of the doubt until you know otherwise.
We blow the Shofar everyday this month—except for Shabbos. The blast of the Shofar is to remind us: Hiney ba yom hadin, “Behold the day of judgment comes.” Soon, we are to be judged by Gd. How do we want Him to judge us? According to Jewish tradition, Gd rewards and punishes (fixes)—midah k’neged midah, “measure for measure.” He judges that way as well. What does that mean? To those who are narrow minded in their perspective and quick and harsh in their judgment, that’s the way Gd judges them. And for those who, in judging, give others the benefit of the doubt…that’s what Gd gives them as well.
And so in the weeks ahead, let us judge everyone on the scale of merit—giving them the benefit of the doubt—because as we judge, so shall we be judged. When we put down others, we instinctively feel that we look better in the process. But we don’t! When we get aggravated, when we’re stressed and upset, we let our guard down. But it’s so worth it to catch yourself and tell yourself that perhaps you don’t know the whole story. If you must judge, judge l’chaf zechut, judge favorably. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Remember, Gd is watching! Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis