Shoftim 5783 – Mah Rabu
In a week where we have seen daring and wisdom from our judges and officials in Georgia and around the country, we read parashat Shoftim, where God tells us to set up judges and officials throughout our communities to uphold the law, maintain order, and sustain a thriving and fair society. The Toldot Ya’akov Yosef, Jacob Joseph of Polonne (1710–1784), teaches us not just to view this message as an external declaration to elect judges, but also to think about how we judge ourselves and the people around us. The verse in the Torah reads:
שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן לְךָ בְּכָל שְׁעָרֶיךָ (דְּבָרִים טז:יח)
Judges and officials you shall give to you for all your gates
He points out the word Lecha, “to you” in the verse and says:
לְךָ, לְעַצְמְךָ. קֹדֶם לְכָל תִּשְׁפֹּט אֶת עַצְמְךָ, קְשֹׁט עַצְמְךָ תְּחִלָּה. וּבְאוֹתָהּ מִדָּה שֶׁאַתָּה מוֹדֵד לְעַצְמְךָ תִּמְדֹּד גַּם לַאֲחֵרִים. שֶׁלֹּא תְּהֵא מֵקִיל לְעַצְמְךָ וּמַחְמִיר לַאֲחֵרִים, מוֹחֵל וּוַתְרָן לְעַצְמְךָ, וּמְדַקְדֵּק עִם אֲחֵרִים כְּחוּט הַשְׁעָרָה, דּוֹרֵשׁ מֵהֶם מָה שֶׁאֵינְךָ מְקַיֵּם בְּעַצְמְךָ. בְּכָל שֶׁעָרֶיךָ: בְּכָל הַשִּׁעוּרִים וְהַמִּדּוֹת שֶׁלְּךָ.
To you, for yourself. First of all, judge yourself, hold yourself up to truth. And by the same measure which you measure yourself, measure others. So that you are not lenient on yourself but stringent on others, forgiving for yourself but exacting with others to the letter of the law, asking of them what you do not ask of yourself. “For all your gates” – for all the ways in which you measure yourself.
This song above, Mah Rabu, was one of the first prayer melodies I ever wrote. In 2013, I was on the subway on my way to teach music at the Hebrew school at BJ (B’nai Jeshurun) in Manhattan. I was about to head out to Los Angeles for an interview weekend to serve as the artist-in-residence at Temple Beth Am and I wanted a fun and catchy melody to teach. These words kept reverberating in my head, taking me back to when I used to hear them shouted out loud in the middle of the paragraph in the siddur by my friend and teacher (and then-counselor) JAR (Jonathan Adam Ross). I wanted to bring light to these words, to open up our eyes to the potential within them, and the potential within ourselves to view the world through the wisdom of their teaching.
What if we looked upon our own deeds the same way we sing about God in Mah Rabu? For each creation, this prayer says, kulam b’chochma asita, “You created each one with wisdom.” What if we measured our deeds in the same way? If we asked ourselves, “am I acting with wisdom right now? Am I creating something that will add to the beauty in the world? As we head into Elul this week, what would it look like to live our lives with that kind of intention, and to see and notice that intention in others as well?