Friday, August 25, 2017

Shoftim: Owning Your Own Season of Repentance

Well, we're back here again. The Jewish month of Elul began this week, which means we're officially in the Season of Repentance, which will lead us straight into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a few, short weeks.
Much as I find this season intimidating (and I do...), I also like that we begin the preparations for these MAJOR services a few weeks early, and start thinking about the holiday themes before the big day is actually upon us. One of the central things that Elul invites us to do is to stop, look around, and think about where we're going and how we feel about it. Are you pleased with the trajectory of your own life, and/or are there changes that can - and should - be made? Looking further around, how is your community doing? And your country? And if you've got some concerns, what does that mean to you, and what happens next? All of that is wrapped up in Elul, so I thought it might be a good time to spend a few minutes talking about these issues.

Our Torah portion, Shoftim, has a couple of interesting opinions on the subject, and one in particular comes from a slightly new reading of a verse that I thought I'd already understood fully. I had not. But first, let me begin at the start of the Torah portion.
The very first verse tells us: "Shoftim v'Shotrim Titein Lecha b'chol Sha'areicha." "You shall appoint magistrates and officials FOR YOURSELVES in all your gates" (Deut. 16:18). I put "for yourselves" in all caps for a reason. It is true that the community needs leaders, and every community and country has a process for how those leaders come to power. But the verse could easily have just said "appoint them." But the word "lecha," "for yourself," which is actually stated in the singular, means that each person has to decide who s/he considers to be a leader. You may win an election, but you can't mandate that people will see you as a leader. Honor, respect, and trust are earned. You cannot threaten, cajole, or bully people into believing in you and wanting to follow your leadership style.

Which brings me to my re-reading of another verse. Soon after the parashah opens, we read a famous call to social justice: "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof," "Justice, Justice, you shall
pursue!" (16:20) I recently read a commentary on this line, which changed its meaning slightly. Instead of seeing the doubling of the word "justice (or righteousness)" as merely being a strengthening of its importance, we might see the second word as an adverb instead. This renders the quote as: "Justice you shall pursue righteously." In other words, the ends do not justify the means. You can't pursue justice in an unjust manner. You have to use righteous, compassionate, kind, and thoughtful tools in your pursuit of justice. You can't raise pitchforks, shields, and torches, and threaten violence, and believe that these can be wielded as tools of "tzedek." It doesn't work that way. The means need to mirror the end; the methods need to be just as moral and empathetic as your intended goal.

All of this circles back to the month of Elul. Each of us needs to choose "for ourselves" the kind of leaders, methods, and community structures that we want to see in the world. We need to hold ourselves AND our magistrates & officials to a higher standard,
and we need to expect more of all of them. It also can't be all talk. We can't shout "Justice, Justice!!" and not employ just and ethical tactics in bringing those values into being. So take this time to start to ask yourself (and others) some tough questions. You still have a whole month before Rosh Hashanah (thank God!). But it comes faster than you'd think... With the start of a new year looming around the corner, how will you seek to make change and embody the values that you uphold? No one else can make these changes FOR you. You have to select them "Lecha," "for yourself." And consider holding up verse 20 as a mantra for Elul, in BOTH its meanings: We should double our efforts to seek peace and justice, AND we must do so in a righteous and compassionate way. Let the Season of Repentance begin!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Gilabrand on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Alaney2k on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Boris Orel on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Martin Kozak on Wikimedia Commons

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