Mishpat Tzedek, Compassionate Judgment

This week's Dvar Torah on Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9) is an abridged version of Pitchei ha-Levavot (Heart-Openings): Torah Study Through a Middot Lens by Rabbi Marc J. Margolius.

The new month of Elul calls us to engage even more deeply in the daily practice of cheshbon hanefesh, soul-accounting, which is the primary Jewish spiritual practice in preparation for the Yamim Nora'im, the "Days of Awe." One rabbinic name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaDin, the "Day of Judgment," a term which may raise connotations of a day of harsh assessment, often triggering excessive guilt or shame. Many of us may find such judgment to be counterproductive to actually altering our behavior.

Parshat Shoftim offers us an alternative understanding of judgment that may more effectively help us assess our actions and guide us to wholesome or holy behavior. It begins with instructions from Moses for establishing the Israelite judiciary:

On the level of peshat (the literal, "simple" meaning), Moses is addressing the imperative of establishing an equitable and impartial justice system in Israelite society. The judges who are appointed in each locality and tribe must be impervious to bias and favoritism. According to Rashi, shoftim/ judges are those who pronounce sentence, and shotrim/ officials or magistrates are those who enforce judges' order (with a stick or strap) until the judge's sentence is accepted by the guilty.

But on a psychological/spiritual level, this passage has much to teach each of us about our internal processes as well. Although "your gates" may refer literally to the actual gates of towns and cities in which the judiciary sat to hear cases, they may also be understood as the portals of the human body, the physical senses by which we take in and relate to the world:

In this verse there is an ethical lesson, based on Sefer Yetzirah (cf. 4:4), which suggests that there are seven "gates" in the body: two eyes, two ears, the mouth and the two nostrils. A person must guard those gates: sight, hearing and speech, and the anger that emerges from the nose. Over these gates we are to set for ourselves "magistrates and officials" so that we will judge ourselves at all times, making sure that they will not commit any sin. If these places are kept whole, then it is possible to remain always holy and pure.[1]

In other words, all of our senses serve as gateways by which we receive and judge/ evaluate stimuli as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. In mindfulness practice, we train ourselves to bring attention to the sensations themselves, as well as how we evaluate them. Appointing "judges and officers" in the "gates of the body," then, might mean cultivating consciousness of the process by which we take in, assess, and act upon sensory input.

Beyond our physical senses, the Zohar understands this passage as referring to "the gates and imaginings of the mind."[2] From this perspective, we might understand Moses as instructing us to position "judges and officers" in the portals of the mind. Perhaps shoftim/ judges represent our capacity to discern the nature of the thoughts or narratives which surface in our mind, determining the sources from which they arise and growing in awareness of the impulses they trigger within us- the nekudot bechirah, choice or awareness points. And perhaps shotrim/ officers represent our executive function, our capacity to respond to and implement these discernments more wisely... 

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye, the student of the Baal Shem Tov, taught that the phrase "appoint for yourself (titein lekha)" means:

For yourself first. First of all, judge yourself, making sure that you have held yourself accountable. Then, in the same manner that you measure yourself, measure others. Do not be easy on yourself and hard on others; forgiving and lax with yourself, demanding of others to within a hair's breadth, asking of them that which you do not do yourself. "In all your gates, bechol sh'arecha" means in every manner that you measure (shiurim) yourself.[3]

So mishpat tzedek requires first that we bring compassionate attention to our inner judge's inclination to critique others before focusing on ourselves, and to gently set that inclination aside so we may begin instead with ourselves. The month of Elul in particular is dedicated to noticing and setting aside our resentments and grievances towards others, and use our "Wisdom Eye" to focus on our own behaviors and motivations. This is the foundation for cheshbon hanefesh, soul accounting.

In Pirkei Avot 1:6, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia teaches, "Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, v'dan et kol adam l'kaf zechut, and judge every person as meritorious." In short, give every human being the benefit of the doubt. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov makes this a focal point of his teaching on teshuvah. He interprets the letter kaf in "l'kaf zechut" as referring to the kaf of the kabbalistic sefirah of Keter/ Crown. We are to spend our lives adorning the crown of every human being, who is made b'tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image...

Rabbi Nachman prescribes stillness and silence as a first step in recognizing our tendency to lash out at others, and to cultivate the quality of seeking the good in others and ourselves [4]. This approach merges mishpat tzedek, righteous use of our judging faculty, with chesed/ kindness. This approach finds support in Rabbi Eleazar's teaching in the Talmud (Sukkah 49b): "All who do tzedakah and mishpat (justice) are regarded as though they had filled the whole world with kindness, as Scripture says, "Loving tzedakah and mishpat, YHVH's love (chesed) fills the earth" (Psalm 33:5)."

This month, as we set our judges and officers "in the gates of our minds," may we cultivate a commitment to mishpat tzedek, judgment that is free of excessive defensiveness. May we notice and release our instinct to seek fault in others before ourselves, and to deflect blame. May we look deeply and honestly at ourselves and seek out and credit all of our merits, as well as the ways in which we have strayed from our best intentions and missed the mark... 

Further Mindfulness/Middot Practices for the week of Shoftim:

  •  As hitlamdut (self-observation) practice this week, bring curiosity to the nature and extent of your judgment of self and others. Investigate if there are particular moments in the day when you habitually critique yourself or others. Simply notice that process as it occurs, noting physical sensations, as well as any additional judgment that forms in your mind about excessive harshness in your judgments.  
  • As a kabalah (simple daily practice) experiment with Rabbi Nachman's teaching. Notice your reaction to someone who is currently irking you in some way, and rather than forming a rebuttal to that person in your mind, take a breath and release that impulse. "Make a crown" for that person by imagining a good quality in him/her-or bring your attention back to yourself, "making a crown" for yourself by noting your own positive quality or action.
  • Compose your own focus phrase for "setting judges and officers" in the gates or your physical senses or mind. Examples: "May I grow in awareness," or "Tzedek tzedek tirdof, may I pursue justice." 
  • The penitential season emphasizes the imagery of gates, and concludes late Yom Kippur afternoon with Neilah, with its metaphor of the closing of the gates of teshuvah. Listen to Neshamah Carlebach's version of her father Reb Shlomo Carlebach's melody for Pitchu li sha'arei tzedek, avo vam, odeh Yah ("open for me the gates of righteousness, I will enter them praising Yah"). 

[1] Shenei Luchot haBerit of R. Isaiah Horovitz (1565-1630), Shoftim, Derekh Hayyim veTokhachot Musar on Deut. 16:18, trans. Rabbi Jonathan Slater
[2] Zohar, Genesis, 103a
[3] Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Torah Gems, pg. 252
[4] Likkutey Mohahan 6:52.

Shabbat Shalom!

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