Preparing for a New Year: Shoftim

Preparing for the New Year.

This morning is Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the month before Rosh HaShanah. As is the custom, I recited Psalm 27 and blew shofar at the end of my morning prayers. The shofar blasts lacked precision. Eleven months have passed since I took the ram’s horn to my lips. I hope to improve the clarity of the sounds and the flow of my relationships in the coming month. For the rabbi’s teach that Elul is an acronym of a verse from Song of Songs, “I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me” (7:10). The goal of the new year is to improve our trust, generosity, and connection with those closest to us, with our acquaintances, and with God.

And now for a short teaching on this week’s Torah reading of Shoftim. The Harvard psychologist, Robert Coles recounted in The Spiritual Life of Children (1990) youthful descriptions of faith and encapsulated in a single word the major religious traditions as follows: Christianity-Salvation; Islam-Submission; Judaism-Righteousness. In that light, among the most essential phrases of the entire Torah is “Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). In Hebrew the word for righteousness, tzedek, is also justice. The rabbis assume that each word of Torah is purposeful. Why, they ask, is the word tzedek repeated?

Some explain that the repetition conveys the centrality of righteousness. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (Brooklyn, 20th century) translates the phrase as “pursue perfect honesty.” I find wisdom in the comment of  Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Peshischa (Poland, 1765-1827)   who teaches that the repetition emphasizes that both the means and the ends must be just. Transparency and honesty are essential for true justice. “Pursue” (terdof) conveys moral compass, rather than a final achievement.  May we calibrate righteousness as our aspiration and of those who lead us.

This morning we begin to wish each other, “May you be blessed with a good and sweet new year.” And so may it be, for you and your family.