As we enter the month of Elul, the period of spiritual preparation for the High Holidays, it is fitting that we read Parashat Shofetim. The word Shofetim means “judges.” This Torah portion is dedicated to the establishment of a judicial system in the Holy Land. In our communities today, we are counting down to the “Day of Judgment,” Yom HaDin.
Though God will serve as the ultimate Judge on Rosh Hashanah, the month of Elul calls upon us to judge ourselves. Every weekday morning of this month, the shofar is blown. According to Maimonides, the sound of the shofar serves as an alarm clock for our souls. He writes:
“The shofar’s call says: Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise! Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator… Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts.” (Laws of Repentance 3:4)
The shofar jolts us out of our spiritual complacency and prompts us to engage in the process of teshuvah. The shofar also demands that we judge ourselves scrupulously. Maimonides continues his discussion of the shofar’s message with the following teaching:
“Accordingly, throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself. On the other hand, if he performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others.” (Laws of Repentance 3:4)
In other words, we must judge ourselves as if our every action has cosmic consequence. As we delve into our souls and assess our standing in the eyes of God and man, we must imagine that our lives are held in a delicate balance. The decisions we make about how we lead our lives will have a significant impact on the world around us – our families, our communities, our nation. As we cultivate this inward awareness during the month of Elul, we pave the road for judicious behavior in the New Year.
The greatest tool we possess in the Jewish tradition for self assessment and renewal is prayer. The reflexive Hebrew verb l’hitpallel, “to pray,” is often translated “to judge oneself.” May we turn to prayer in earnest this coming month as we prepare ourselves for the Day of Judgment. May we truly judge ourselves with honest and critical eyes, and may we envision a year of merit and salvation.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.