Judge Yourself First

Judge Yourself First


Welcome and welcome back! Are you ready to go? I love this time of year. The weather changes. The skies clear. People have more energy. I love summer, too, but July and August are
more of an interlude between two phases of life than the main event. The main event is the year itself. We need to do stuff with our lives. We need goals. If every day was summer, it would bore us
quickly. At the synagogue we are regaining the spring
in our step slowed by summer. Everyone is back – or will be in days. Tomorrow we have our first b’nai mitzvah
of the season. Religious school starts on Sunday and our
preschool next week. Synagogues need to be bustling. I often complain to our staff that when our
schoolchildren are not in the building – it’s way too quiet for me. I need to hear the travails of toddlers. Unless they’re hollering in the hallways,
I don’t feel I am doing my job. I need to hear our youth yelping and our tweens
twitching and twaddling – disrupting our meetings. It’s all for a good cause. They are excited to be here. Of course, they love summer, too, and if you
ask them – especially the older kids – many might happily exchange a full year of summer
for a year of school. But not really. Even youngsters are excited to be back. I know because I spend time with them. Some have grown two inches in two months. It’s fascinating how that happens. B’nai mitzvah students leave town as children
– and return two months later – young adults – poised, confident and mature. Growing in confidence and maturity should
be the goal for all of us. Life should be about continuous growth – in
wisdom, sensitivity, compassion, empathy. As the years unfold and we move into different
phases of life, we should seek ever more understanding and meaning. Things have happened to us in this interlude
between two seasons. Some of us have fallen ill. Some of us have lost loved ones. We have resolved some challenges, and new
ones have appeared. The Jewish calendar encourages us to use this
time wisely. We are now in the Hebrew month of Elul, the
period after summer when our tradition sets aside a full month to prepare for the High
Holy Days. Judaism was never big on self-centeredness. Most of our experiences are communal, not
individual. Even prayer requires a minyan, a community
of Jews. Our festivals mark events affecting the entire
people, not the individual. We place central importance on social justice,
the welfare of society at large. Revelation in Judaism – in contrast to the
other two great Western faiths – occurred not to an individual, but to the entire people
congregated at the foot of Mount Sinai. We are community-based. Our thinking – and our actions – are predominantly
collective, not individual. It is one reason that a disproportionate number
of Jews have always been at the forefront of social justice movements. Still, there is one period in the year when
we focus on ourselves. It is this period: the month of Elul leading
into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If you haven’t started your inner contemplation
yet, if you haven’t begun the work of self-repair, what are you waiting for? It’s already late. Show more urgency. Like our youth, you, too, should be asking
yourself, “What do I want to be when I grow up? Who am I? What am I? What is my purpose? What do I want to change? How shall I improve?” The parasha of the week is called “Shofetim”
– towards the end of Deuteronomy, the final book of the Torah. True to form, “Shofetim” is primarily
about society. It contains a fascinating collection of laws
and moral expectations related to social welfare. It begins with the instruction to appoint
judges: שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים,
תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ “You shall appoint judges and officers in
all your gates.” מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק Justice is the predominant concern. Our focus is the collective. Still, Judaism understands the connection
between social repair and personal repair. The Sages wanted a balance between the needs
of the individual and the needs of the community. Hillel taught: אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי
לִי “If I am not for myself, who will be for
me?” וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי,
מָה אֲנִי. “But if I am only for myself, what am I?” The whole point of this season of introspection
is to get ourselves right first – so we can help get others right. If our heart is not right, we cannot change
the hearts of others. Thus some commentators understand the biblical
verse mandating the appointment of judges – as a command to judge yourself first. They point to the actual words of the Torah: שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים,
תִּתֶּן-לְךָ Literally, “You shall appoint judges – lecha
– for yourself.” Start with yourself. Appoint yourself as judge of yourself. Judge yourself first – before you judge
others. Do not be easy on yourself and hard on others. Do not be quick to forgive yourself and slow
to forgive others. Do not expect of others more than you expect
of yourself. It’s hard to do, right? Most of us are harder on others than ourselves. Most of us have much less sympathy for others
than for ourselves. Mel Brooks explained that tragedy is when
I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer
and die. We expect more of others. We hardly ever stop to assess whether there
was something flawed in our approach. That person insulted me (darn it) and he is
wrong. It hardly dawns on us to ask whether we said
something – or refrained from saying something – that caused the upset. That teacher, that parent, that friend, that
board of trustees judged me unfairly. Who do they think they are? We hardly pause to consider, “Could I have
done better? Maybe they are right –or at least partially
right. There might be something to what they say.” We are quick to assign blame to others. Like the couple in therapy whose 20-year marriage
was teetering on the edge. The husband detailed at length all the things
that had gone wrong in their marriage and, in each case, blamed his wife. Finally, the therapist asked him: “Do you
think that the entire responsibility for your troubles rests with your wife?” That stopped him in his tracks. He paused for a long while and finally replied,
“No, not really. I concede that my wife is only 50 percent
to blame. “The other 50 percent belongs to her mother.” If we begin judging the world by judging ourselves
first, we will have fewer complaints – both against God and fellow human beings. Beware: if all you see are the transgressions
of others – the unfairness, the injustice, the intolerance, the rudeness, the crudeness
– of others – if that is all you see, you are likely blind to your own flaws. In an era that seems to value identity more
than responsibility; When individuals and groups compete to claim
victimhood, they are a victim of circumstance or oppression – and their grievance is harsher,
crueler, and more unjust than yours; When so many claim to need protection from
some person or group; When so many accuse and shame others to achieve
what they want; When, if something goes wrong with me, I look
to blame you: Given this culture of our times, take this
month of repentance, introspection and forgiveness to look inwards. Take a snapshot of yourself – a Jewish “selfie.” Take the measure of yourself. Take responsibility and express accountability. Hold yourself to the same – or even higher
– standards that you hold others. Do not claim justice for yourself and commit
injustices towards others. Do not be quick to forgive yourself and slow
to forgive others. Start with yourself. And be honest with yourself. Get yourself right first. And then go out and change the world.

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