Elul – the Month of Judgment

Elul – the Month of Judgment

Mati Kirschenbaum

Time passes by inexorably; it seems as though the year 5778 has begun only yesterday, and already since last week we’ve been in the month of Elul, the month preceding the festival of Rosh Hashanah. Jewish tradition tells us that in the month of Elul we should reflect on the past year and take stock of our good deeds and of our transgressions. Sephardi Jews hold Slichot services in synagogues already starting from the beginning of this month. Their aim is to make Jews realize what a challenging task it is to improve our conduct, which is an essential part of the process of spiritual preparations for Rosh Hashanah – the Day of Judgment. This challenge seems to exceed our capabilities. Humbled by our smallness, throughout the month of Elul we call upon the Eternal, asking Him to be a just and benevolent judge. We could ask ourselves whether this plea is truly well-thought-out. After all, we don’t know what kind of criteria the Eternal will use to judge us. We can only hope that they resemble the Eternal’s commandments regarding the role of a judge, which can be found in this week’s Torah portion, in parashat Shoftim (Judges). In its opening verse we find the following words:

“You shall appoint [judges] and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the [Eternal] your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. 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.”
(Deuteronomy 16:18-20.)

The above mentioned quote teaches us that a fair judge of the people of Israel should treat everyone in the same way. Rashi, a medieval Torah commentator, teaches us that these words refer to the trial proceedings, during which the judge should listen to both sides of the trial with equal interest and be equally sympathetic towards both of them. In addition, Rashi claims that if during a trial the judge shows special favor to one side, it could influence the actions of the other side of the trial, since, according to Rashi, that other side, convinced that it is being treated unfairly, could give up and stop fighting for justice for itself. Rashi also claims that a judge cannot take bribes even if he intends to issue a just ruling, since bribes make it impossible to judge a case in a fully objective way. Interestingly, Rashi interprets the verse, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” as a phrase encouraging the Israelites to choose a trustworthy (literally: a beautiful) court from among the various institutions of the justice system which are available to us. How could we apply Rashi’s words to the description of the Eternal’s role as a judge, a role which we invoke so often in the month of Elul?

First of all, we can assume that the Eternal is interested in a complete assessment of our merits and transgressions. As an impartial judge He listens not only to our internal “prosecutor”, but also to our internal “defense attorney”. Secondly, while the Eternal is aware of our transgressions, He does not act as a prosecutor in our case, since that would make it impossible for us to be granted a just verdict in our trial. Thirdly, the Eternal’s judgment can be considered trustworthy according to the definition provided by the Rabbinical interpretation of Jewish law, which means that His rulings are just and not overly cruel. 

The above mentioned Rashi’s commentaries to our Parasha seem to suggest to us that we should not be overly frightened of Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, since the Eternal is aware of both our strengths and of our weaknesses. In spite of that many of us feel anxious in the month of Elul. We are often not sure whether our merits will outweigh our transgressions and we blame ourselves for our moments of weakness. Such a self-critical stance makes it difficult for us to appreciate our good deeds. In addition, if we are overly critical of ourselves, we do not appreciate our inherent potential to change our old ways. By acting this way, we judge our behavior in an unfair and excessively harsh way.

Parashat Shoftim teaches us that such an approach is at odds with the spirit of our tradition, which emphasizes the significance of a comprehensive, well-balanced judgment of all human imperfections. In this year’s month of Elul I encourage you to reflect on your weaknesses and strengths without judging yourself too harshly.   I deeply believe that leaving a critical judgment of your actions to the Eternal will allow you to prepare to the High Holidays in a better way. I wish you all a good Shabbat rest and a month of Elul full of motivating reflection rather than self-criticism. Shabbat Shalom!  

Mati Kirschenbaum
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

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