Judging Ourselves in the Month of Elul
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This week we read Parashat Shofitm, which begins by saying: “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” (Deuteronomy 16:18)
If you check the Hebrew, you will find out that it is written literally: שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙
“Titen lecha” means “appoint for you”.
The eighteenth-century Hasidic commentator Toldot Yaakov Yosef explains these words saying that “lecha”, is intended to say: for you, for yourself. As if to say, you should appoint judges within yourself. Every person has the obligation to sit in judgment of him/herself and his/ her own actions.
Maybe it is not a coincidence that Parashat Shoftim is the first Torah portion we read in the month of Elul, the last month before the New Year has begun, the period that we dedicate to personal growth, introspection, and teshuva (repentance) as we prepare ourselves for the High Holidays. The key to repentance is self-introspection (Cheshbon Hanefesh); to be able to detect our defects, and use our innate virtues to work on them. In other words, to make a healthy self-judgment. We are the only person who can actually judge ourselves.
How should we judge ourselves? Should we be severe and strict with ourselves or compassionate and merciful?
There were two well-known rabbis, students of Rabbi Israel Salanter (1809- 1883), founder of the Musar movement, who suggested opposite ways to judge ourselves. Rabbi Simcha Zissel (1824–1898), a rabbi of the small Lithuanian village of Kelm, emphasized man’s limitations, his frailties and vulnerabilities. His followers would spend the days of Elul in fear and trepidation, hoping to overcome the burdens of their sins.
On the other hand, Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel of Slobodka (1849- 1929), a rabbi in a suburb of the large city of Kovno, Slobodka had a very different spiritual strategy. He encouraged his disciples to recognize gadlut ha’adam, the greatness of human beings. He urged his followers to recognize their strength and potential.
Which one of these approaches is better? I think that they are both correct, but applying them together. We should be strict and compassionate with ourselves at the same time, looking for a good balance between the two approaches. This idea reminds me of a famous teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a great Polish Hasidic master at the turn of the 19th century:
“Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “Bishvili nivra ha-olam”, “The world was created for me.” (BT Sanhedrin 37B) But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “V’anochi afar v’efer”, “I am but dust and ashes.” (Gen. 18:27)
I believe this is a very powerful and meaningful teaching for this time of the year, when we are diving into ourselves, introspecting our souls and judging ourselves. We should be able to reach our two pockets and read these two statements alternatively, depending on our mood and attitude. The opposite suggestions of the two rabbis of the Musar Movement, and the two pockets of rabbi Simcha Bunim can help us to judge ourselves with equanimity, preventing us to feel miserable nor conceited. We should look for a balance and start this new year having in mind these lessons.