The world has danced and cried another year around the sun, and here we are again: in the month of Elul.
“ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה”
“Repentance, prayer, and charity avert the severity of the decree”
In just a few short weeks, many of us will whisper, sing, or shout those words on Rosh Hashanah. We will pray with all our being that the good deeds of the past year and the teshuvah of the past month will swiftly remove any punishment headed our way, ushering us into a blissful year filled with beauty and blessing.
The Rosh Hashanah liturgy evokes imagery of the Master of the World peering down at each and every one of us, deciding what fate we deserve based on our actions over the past year. While this level of personal attention is quite touching, it is also downright terrifying. Even during the best of years, we all make mistakes – and for most of us, this past year was definitely not the best of years!
But Parshat Shoftim, which is always read during the month of Elul, subtly slips us the key to the gates of teshuvah:
“שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ”
“Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourself in all your gates” (Devarim 16:18)
If I want to make sure that the Judge above does not dig down into the deepest depths of anything and everything I may have done wrong, there is one clear way out: I just have to make sure that I don’t judge others. It’s as simple as that.
The language of the verse conveys that judgment should be reserved strictly for ourselves: not for your neighbor who yells at her kids, not for your aunt that did or didn’t get vaccinated, not for your brother that can’t hold down a job, not for your daughter who always hits her brother, not for the stranger who cut in the grocery line, and not for your spouse who won’t stop doing that thing.
Anytime we feel the arrows of judgment shooting from our eyes and hearts, we need to redirect them inwards. The only person we should be judging is ourselves. And even ourselves – perhaps especially ourselves – we need to judge with love, mercy, and understanding, transforming those sharp arrows into gentle flashlights that give us the opportunity to reveal and clean out the darkest crevices of our hearts.
Can you imagine showing up on Rosh Hashanah after a month of really, truly not judging anyone? Of seeing each and every person as we pray God will see us? As pure souls trying our best in a challenging world. As sparks of the Divine shining in a way that only we can. According to our great Kabbalists, this step – simultaneously simple and extraordinary – is our entry ticket into a world filled with blessing and love, without any need to fear an evil decree.