It's no coincidence that we read the Torah portion of Shoftim on the first Sabbath of the Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. It signals the time when we must begin the serious spiritual work of evaluating our deeds and actions — our very lives — as the Day of Judgment approaches.
I've often wondered why it is that God forgives us. How many times have we asked His forgiveness for the same sins? A judge might be merciful for a first-time offender, but would he punish to the greatest extent of the law a repeat offender? Why should the Supreme Judge forgive us?
The portion opens, Shoftim V'Shotrim Teeteyn L'cha B'chol Sh'arecha — "Judges and police shall you set for yourself in all your gates." Many of our sages point to the word L'cha, "for yourself," and ask why is it in the singular form and not the plural? After all, this is a command to all the Jewish people.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, the Chasidic master, finds in this word, L'cha, an insight into the mechanism of forgiveness, of how and why does God forgive. The Holy One, blessed be He, will judge the community of Israel on the Day of Judgment ("Rosh Hashanah") with the greatness of His merciful love and grace.
But what is it, in us that arouses this merciful love and grace? The answer: When we act with grace and love defending the merits of every Jew and judging him or her positively, this same attribute is aroused on high.
As the holidays approach, even the most skeptical among us has reason to pause and wonder what the future holds. The Days of Awe are the time for reflection, even for those of us who don't give too much thought to it, on the precariousness of our lives, on the balance of sanity and despair, on the razor-thin edge between life and death. It's another year. What have we done with our lives? Where are we going?
'Merits of the Other'
Levi Yitzchak, following the Jewish mystical tradition, teaches that it is up to each Jew to set an example for God, so to speak. It is up to each Jew to so live that God, in His interrelatedness with us, will be moved to act in merciful love and in grace.
You see, most of us believe in our own righteousness, and therefore, in the wrongness of the other. And our very righteousness makes it difficult, and almost unnecessary, for us to forgive.
Why forgive when she or he is wrong, and I am right? But imagine, Levi Yitzchak suggests, if God thought that, who would ever be forgiven? Why should God forgive us even our petty sins, much less our serious ones?
The way out of this circle of self-righteousness begins, in the words of Levi Yitzchak, with "defending the merits of the other, with "judging (the other) positively." Says Levi, "Why did she or he do what they did? Why do I resist exercising the same compassion against him or her that I would have others, and indeed God, exercise towards me?"
How many times have arguments between friends, business associates or loved ones contained only hostile statements overflowing with self-righteousness? Sure, it's easier to stay angry. We love to hold on to our pride and feel insulted. But in light of Levi Yitzchak, let me ask, is that the judgment we wish to see for ourselves?
Is that the tone of the judgment we want for ourselves on Rosh Hashanah? Do we really intend to set the example of mean self-righteousness for God? "No," says Levi Yitzchak, commenting on the end of the first verse in this week's Torah portion, V'shaftu et haam meeshpat tzedak — "and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment." Rather, he suggests, "let each person teach himself or herself to become accustomed to 'judging the people by a judgment of charity and merit,' so that she or he and all Israel be judged innocent in the judgment on high."
Let us open our hearts to forgive each other, so that God may do likewise for us.
Rabbi Jeffery Schnitzer is religious leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel of Lower Bucks County.