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Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

Parashat Shof’tim is read around the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. Less than 29 days separate us from Rosh HaShanah, New Year’s Day, and Elul is a time of taking personal inventory in preparation for the High Holy Days. We review the year that was, fearlessly assessing how we have “shown-up” in our world against the yardstick of our own values and principles. This process is called Teshuvah/returning, because no matter how far we have drifted away from our center, engaging in this practice with honesty and integrity allows us to return, to re-align ourselves with our soul, our Higher Self. Teshuvah is a way to heal, to forgive and be forgiven, to learn from and let go of the past, and to reclaim our own inner wisdom.

The question is, how are we to enter into such a process? How do we engage in a thorough moral inventory, openly examine the character flaws that impact our lives, without falling into excessive self-flagellation? We are already so good at criticizing and condemning ourselves for all our faults and failures throughout the year that we could easily overdo it during the intense period of Elul. The first verses of this week’s Torah portion tell us how to approach this inner process:

You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you. (Deut. 16:19-20)

Judging, Torah reminds us, is not condemning. Judging is hearing arguments from all sides, weighing the evidence at hand, assessing, and forming an opinion. Therefore, first and foremost, we are to be fair in our self-assessment. We are not to take on more blame than what derives from the hurt we have caused and are to weigh each wrong-doing in proportion to its severity. Our tradition makes a distinction, for example, between the wrongs committed inadvertently and those committed on purpose. Then, we are not to show “partiality.” We are not to dwell on our favorite wrong-doings—the familiar, the known, perhaps the minor ones—and ignore or shortchange others. All our character traits deserve their time in the court of our consciousness.

The point of this exercise is not to beat ourselves up, but to become increasingly aware; to bring out of the shadows, out of the basement of repression and denial the fullest truth possible about ourselves. Why? Because awareness itself heals. Because our ability to make the unconscious conscious directly impacts our personal growth. Which is why we shouldn’t “take bribes.” Bribes are the compromises we make with ourselves, the personal justifications and rationalizations that allow us to write off some of our character flaws as just part of being human. They divert us from the truth and leave us stuck in ego.

It seems almost unavoidable that when we focus on the work of Teshuvah the ego will try to trap us in its illusory pursuit of unattainable perfection. During self-examination it wanted to be “the worst,” now looking toward the new year it aspires to be “the best.” How do we deal with the ego’s extremes? “Justice, justice, shall you pursue,” demands the Torah. Tzedek, the word translated here as “justice,” also means “rightness” or “correctness.” What we are to “pursue,” therefore, is the right view about our being, the correct understanding of who we are, as we are. Practicing Tzedek, or Right View, helps us understand our multifaceted conditioning and how it manifests in our world. It gives us, at one level, the possibility to heal and grow, and at another level, the opportunity to transcend this conditioned self altogether. It supports our ability to stand increasingly as the Witness, aware of who we are, as we are; aware of what is, as it is. When we stand as the Witness, we stand with both metaphysical feet in the land that the Eternal our God is giving us, the land of Realization, of Awakening. As the High Holy Days approach, may we courageously pursue Tzedek, the gift of Right View.