Shoftim: On Judging Others and Judging Yourself

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24 Aug 2017

Last week’s Parsha, Parshat Re’eh ends with a very interesting verse: “Every man shall bring as much as he can afford, according to the blessing of the Lord, your God, which He has given you” (Devarim 16:17). Interestingly, this week´s Parsha, Parshat Shoftim starts with the following verse: “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for YOURSELF in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall JUDGE THE PEOPLE WITH RIGHTEOUS JUDGMENT” (Devarim 16:18). What’s the connection in these pesukim? One answer is that since each person has to serve God according his/her our own individual situation, the only person who can actually judge ourselves is us (Always with the approach of personal growth and not with a feeling of guilt and low self-esteem!) And since we don´t know the condition of our fellow, the Torah commands us to judge him/her fairly and favorably.

We read Parshat Re´eh during the month of Av, a month that we mourn for the destruction of our Temple. Sadly, we still mourn because we haven´t yet repaired what destroyed it: sinat chinam, baseless hatred and our lack of unity. If we would really judge our brothers favorably, the hate between us would much smaller, and maybe we wouldn´t have a Tisha B´Av. This week we will read Parshat Shoftim, the first Parsha in the month of Elul, the period that we dedicate to personal growth and teshuva (repentance). The key to repentance is self-introspection (Cheshbon Hanefesh); to be able to detect our defects, and use our innate virtues to work on them. In other words, to make a healthy self judgment.

Being judgmental of others prevents us from having a normal life. We can´t trust anyone, enjoy the moment, or have deep relationships with others when we are constantly judging everyone around us.

I realize that I suffer from being judgmental and that I need to make a real change; in fact, my goal for this Elul is to work on this. That´s why I decided to write this letter to myself as an exercise in improvement. If you are struggling with the same problem, it may help you too.

Dear Me,

You are suffering from a terrible disease. You constantly label, judge, qualify people according to their level of religiosity, intelligence, physical appearance, group where they belong, etc. But fortunately, this has a very effective cure: ALWAYS keep the following ideas in mind…

  1. STOP BEING SO SELF EXIGENT! The origin of this problem is that you have very high expectations of yourself and your close group of friends, teachers and family. That´s why people disappoint you easily and you tend to judge yourself and others harshly.  You have to know that everyone (including you!) has the right to err. And that doesn’t make you a bad person, in fact that makes you a person! G-d created imperfect human beings, so that they could overcome their nature and transform into a more refined creations. As Mishlei wisely says: “Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up” (Proverbs 24:16) Don´t demonize yourself and your colleagues after making a mistake!
  2. YOU AREN´T G-D! You´re definitely not G-d, nor a super spiritual person that can look beyond the physical world and see the soul, to say in which level people stand. Once the Vilna Gaon was asked to move to another village.  He accepted but with the condition that the beggar who everyone despised, come with him. The community leaders were puzzled and asked him why. Why would the giant of the generation want to take that humiliating man with him!? The Vilna Gaon answered that this simple homeless man was one of the lamed-vav tzadikim nistarim, one of the thirty-six, concealed righteous people in the World. This teaches us that you can never judge what you see, real greatness comes always from the inside.
  3. YOU DON´T KNOW THE JOURNEY YOUR FELLOW HAS GONE THROUGH. The process is even more important than the state you are now.  For example, when you are thinking: “This friend wears her skirt too short”. Rather think “This friend is so admirable! With all her family against her, she started wearing skirts”. It makes a huge difference. Never forget what Pirkei Avot says “Who is wise? One who learns from every man” (Avot 4:1) Everybody has an inspiring story, maybe in his Judaism, family, childhood, career, etc. Instead of comparing the growth of others with your own, try to grow and learn from the growth you see around you. 
  4. ARE YOUR PRIORITIES IN THE CORRECT ORDER? Have you been dedicating AT LEAST, the same time and energy checking your behavior as you spend checking your friend’s? Are you more focused on belittling others than on your own personal growth? Maybe misjudging your friends makes you feel better about yourself, because it gives you the impression that you are better and there´s no need for you to change? But, that´s not true! Even though, improvement is difficult, it is the reason that we are in this World. Spending our time and energy judging and criticizing others is what prevents us from reaching our maximum potential.    
  5. JUDGING DOES NOT HAVE ANY EFFECT. Remember the other day when you were talking with a friend about a boy in school that was involved in many risky behaviors and was suffering with depression? After talking about him for a long time your friend gave you a very powerful message “He won´t get better if we talk about him, the only thing we can do to help him, is to pray”. Talking about problems is having a very passive and apathetic attitude. If you really wish others the best, you wouldn’t be criticizing them, instead you would be praying or finding out an effective and sincere way to help. We remember to always wish the best for our family and circle of friends. But it’s also important to apply this to people we know who we aren’t so close to, who maybe go to another synagogue or someone that has a different philosophy than us.  Because after all “Kol Yisrael Arevim ze la ze”, “All Israel is responsible for each other” (Tamud Shevuot 39a), despite all our differences and disagreements.
  6. OUR TORAH IS A DIVINE CREATION, THAT MEANS IT IS INFINITE. Since the Torah is literally what human beings can understand of G-d´s thinking, and was written by Him, the Torah is infinite. Therefore in Judaism there´s space for many hashkafot, views, movements, etc.  In our religion, two rabbis resolve the same halachic case in an opposite way, and both are correct at the same time. The same is true of groups within Orthodoxy, we must learn to respect each other, in spite of our differences because bottom line, we all strive for the same: to attach to our traditions and beliefs no matter the influence from the rest of the World and to be an “Or la’Goyim, a Light for the Nations”.
  7. BELOVED IS THE MAN, FOR HE WAS CREATED IN HIS (G-D´S) IMAGE” (Pirkei Avot 3:14) If you would internalize this, you would never misjudge or disparage another Jew. How can a human being feel he has the right to criticize another divine creation? Always remember this basic principle in Judaism, you´ll be much more conscious when judging another Jew (after all he is your brother!).
  8. EVERYHING IS MIDAH KENEGED MIDAH-MEASURE FOR MEASURE. We know that how we judge other, determines how G-d will judge us. As the Talmud in Shabbat say: “If one judges his fellow favorably positively, he will be judged favorably by the Omnipresent.” (Shabbat 127b). It´s good business! If you want to be judged by G-d with His attribute of compassion you should care to judge others in the same way. 

I really hope these tips and ideas will serve as a tool to improve. I guarantee you that if you review them every day and apply them to your life, you´ll notice big changes in you and your environment. B’Hatzlacha!

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.