This week we are reading one of the most important portions in the Torah for teachings on social justice. “Appoint judges and officials in all your gates, that Adonai your God is giving you for your tribes, and they shall govern the people with due justice. Do not judge unfairly: do not show partiality; do not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20).
These majestic verses are so rich with implications for our civic life today, both in the U.S. and in Israel. But the month of Elul (which began last weekend) draws me to a strain of commentary on these verses that relates to internal judgment, interior governance, and the way we guide (or fail to guide) our own lives.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev writes that the verse “Appoint judges and officials…” is directed to each one of us in our individual lives. “You, yourself must establish and determine the divine judgment through your ‘gates,’ the gates that you create and arouse through your actions. Thus we ‘shall judge the people with due justice.’ That is, each one of us must train ourselves to learn to judge others with ‘due justice,’ to offer positive testimony and innocence for all others… ‘The way a person measures [others], so is he [or she] measured.’”
Commenting on these verses, so plainly directed at the landscape of communal life, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak bids us to bring our attention inward. Yes, he says, there are judges and officials “out there.” They must be fair, just, and rigorously impartial, unmarred by preference or bias of any kind.
But there need to be judges and gates inside us as well. He reads the gates in the verse as a metaphor, imagining our lips and our hands as the “gates” through which what is inside us makes its way out into the world. Those gateways need to be guarded by “judges” — our thoughtfulness, our common sense, our convictions and our capacity for self-restraint. Too often, he seems to say, the gates are unsecured, and what emerges is unjust: negative judgments, harmful words about others and subsequent actions that destroy rather than support relationships. When the gateways between our inner world and the interpersonal world are unprotected, we are at risk of blurting out hurtful words, spreading stories and opinions that may damage relationships and acting unreflectively in ways that betray our own values. We see, and often participate in, such instinctive, mindless behavior on social media every day. It is considered normal in today’s society, but it represents a collapse of interpersonal ethics.
Instead of leaving the gates unguarded, the Levi Yitzhak teaches that the Torah tells us to post judges and officials at the points where our inner world meets the outside. These must not be the kind of nasty inner critics that plague so many of us, mercilessly blaming us even for our well-intentioned thoughts and behaviors. He means virtuous, even loving, inner judges that could guide, govern, and sometimes restrain our words, our actions and our thoughts about other people. At times most of us need such a judge — a voice of caution and of deliberative thought, to keep us from letting our instincts run wild in moments of anger, pain or outrage. Such a virtuous internal judge might stop us before we act out our impulsive judgments, sparing us the pain of hurting others and violating our own aspirations for our lives.
The rabbi concludes, quoting the Talmud, “The way a person measures (others), so is he [or she] measured.” That is, our words and opinions about other people say more about us than about the person we are talking about. When we judge another as foolish, ill-informed or mean-spirited, these judgments reflect on the lens through which we see the world. This is a profound note of caution that is easily forgotten when we feel challenged. If an internal judge could occasionally stop and ask “Are you sure?” when we are tempted to act on our negative judgments of others, we would likely commit fewer interpersonal sins for which we need to repent during the holidays.