“Do you solemnly swear or affirm that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you G-d?”
Though there wasn’t formal training for this in Rabbinical school, over my relatively short career I have appeared in court on behalf of others at least a few dozen times. Often it is to testify on a divorce matter, but I have also served as a character witness on drug issues, financial disputes and even a false rape accusation.
Remarkably, more often than not, the occasions that I have been asked to come to court have fallen during this time of the year, in the month of Elul. (Related: These Are the Questions You Need to Ask Yourself This Elul.)
As I sat in a courtroom again just this week, I noticed the many comparisons we can draw to the great court dates we will all face just a short time from now on Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and the lessons we can learn.
The tension, anxiety and uncertainty in a courtroom are palpable. All parties, including highly skilled legal counsel, know that they can advance the most persuasive arguments and provide the most compelling evidence, but ultimately the judge – and the judge alone – will rule as he sees fit. Despite all of their efforts and pleadings, the fate of the litigants is solely in the hands of the judge.
There is much we can learn from observing the temperament, behavior and disposition of those appearing before a human judge. As we stand before the Almighty, how can we better truly feel and acknowledge that our fate is in His hands?
The decorum in a courtroom is impeccable. All parties dress formally, given the seriousness of appearing before a magistrate. There is an absolute and total intolerance for talking, eating, ringing cell phones, noisy children, or anything else that will either distract from the proceedings or compromise the prestige of the courtroom.
How is the decorum in G-d’s courtroom? Do we create an atmosphere that is equally intolerant of distractions and frivolous conversation? Do our dress and behavior reflect the seriousness and majesty of the forum in which we stand and the reason we are there?
No lawyer or client walks into a courtroom without having prepared. The strategy is devised, the witnesses are prepped, and opening and closing arguments are scripted and rehearsed. Many hours are spent in preparation before appearing before the judge in an effort to achieve a favorable result.
The gemara (Talmud) in Berachot tells us that the early pious Jews would spend an hour in meditation, preparing to pray. How much preparation do we do? Do we dedicate a few moments to clear our minds and focus our thoughts before making our presentation before the Judge of Judges?
4) Swearing In:
I find it noteworthy that before a witness testifies, the court asks him or her to swear in G-d’s name that he or she will tell the truth. Implicitly, the statement acknowledges G-d’s existence and the consequences of dishonoring His name by lacking fidelity to the truth. The court assumes that the fear of G-d will prevent any witness from violating his oath.
Jewish law also mandates taking an oath in certain circumstances. The gemara explains that invoking G-d’s name will automatically elevate the seriousness with which the witness approaches his words.
Our words matter, particularly in a courtroom, and using them accurately, appropriately and with integrity speaks to our very credibility as people. Do we always say what we mean and mean what we say? Are we honest, truthful and precise when reporting experiences to others? Does the fear of G-d lead us to be honest with G-d -– and ourselves?
Every courtroom has either a stenographer or a recording device that captures every word said. Lawyers, witnesses and litigants must choose their words carefully, for once they are expressed they enter the record for posterity.
The mishna (the first phase of recorded Oral Torah) in Avot teaches us to know Who is above us and recognize that an eye is always watching, an ear is always listening, v’chol ma’asecha b’sefer nichtavim – and all of our deeds are recorded forever.
Do we live with a cognizance and consciousness that what we say and do matters and that they enter the record of our lives, even when nobody is around to see it?
6) Contempt of Court:
Part of the proceedings I observed this week included an accusation that one party had been in contempt of court for not following a court order.
The judge turned to the accused party and said,
Do you understand that when I issue a ruling, if the other party can supply evidence that you knowingly and willingly disobeyed me, I will find you in contempt of my court and there will be great consequences? I can throw you in jail, and you will remain there until you obey my judgment.
Do we honor and obey the rulings of the Judge of Judges? Do we recognize that our choices have consequences and we are accountable for what we do? Are we in contempt of G-d’s court?
The comparisons could go on, but what I am trying to communicate is evident at this solemn season in the Jewish year. Sitting in a courtroom in the month of Elul is, I have found, among the best sources of inspiration and motivation to prepare for the Days of Awe so that they are, indeed, awesome days of prayer, introspection, reflection and growth.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue (BRS) in Boca Raton, Florida. He serves as Co-Chair of the Orthodox Rabbinical Board’s Va’ad Ha’Kashrus, as Director of the Rabbinical Council of America’s South Florida Regional Beis Din for Conversion, and as Posek of the Boca Raton Mikvah.