Judging ourselves, our communities

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This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9.

Parshat Shoftim opens with these words: “Judges and officers you shall place in all your gates…they shall judge the people with a righteous judgment.” Moses is speaking to the community of Israel and the elders, but he is also talking to the individual.

If Moses is addressing us as individuals, we need to ask ourselves, “Am I judging my actions and am I guarding my gates?” To put it another way: “What gates/areas of my life am I leaving unguarded and am I aware of all my actions? Do I take responsibility for my actions? Am I a responsible person and a just member of society?”

Shoftim, which falls at the end of the first week of Elul, provokes important questions. This is the month of judging and looking at our actions and starting the work of cleaning our inner houses prior to Yom Kippur. In the 12-step programs, personal inventory and doing teshuvah are a requirement for sobriety. In our tradition, this work is also a requirement for spiritual sobriety and renewal.

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Are we judging our actions? Are we rationalizing the answers? Too often we are more apt to blame others and give excuses for our behaviors than take responsibility for our actions, confess them, make restitution and commit to not repeating them.

Teshuvah (repentance) requires going into our souls and discerning how our actions have affected others. While our intentions may have been pure, our actions still may have hurt. We have to judge our actions and words and the effect they have had rather than our intentions.

I am asking you to view the video record of the last year. Look at the ways in which your actions improved from the year before and what areas and to which people you need to repair. We also have to look at the actions that we as a community and nation have engaged in. Remember that Moses spoke to the community as well as the individual. As we hold ourselves accountable, so we must hold our leaders accountable.

Teshuvah is the action in our tradition that unifies what has been torn apart. It is, according to our tradition, an essential element in the creation of the world. God knew that we humans would not be perfect and that we would tear the fabric of the cloth that unites us with God and other human beings. So, God created teshuvah as one of the basic elements of the world in order for us to have a way to reunite with both.

This is one of the hardest and most holy actions that we do each year. Five months ago, we celebrated Pesach and we read from the Haggadah that we must see ourselves as if we had been slaves in Egypt and we have been redeemed. In a sense, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about freeing ourselves from bondage. During this time of the year we are supposed to examine our lives and see in what ways we are enslaved to our emotions and prejudices. We are supposed to clean out our inner lives by doing teshuvah. If we are to live as free people and make our corner of the world better, we have to fix what we have broken.

Rabbi Charles Feinberg is the executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights.

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