Ready or not, the month of Elul is upon us. The High Holy Days are just around the corner. One of my favorite contemporary books on this season captures the dramatic Elul wakeup call quite perfectly in its bold title: This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l. It is the season to reflect and to find around every corner a message that might awaken us, calling us to be honest with ourselves, to evaluate how we are living and to make new choices to grow and change for the better. So it is no wonder that within Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, we can find hints pointing to the soul-searching work this month demands of us.
The first hint comes in the opening verse (Devarim 16:18):
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכׇל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.
While the verse’s simple meaning describes how the Israelite society was tasked to set up legal and political systems, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (a 19th-Century Hasidic leader), known as the Kotzker Rebbe, reads this verse as a powerful metaphor that can be applied universally. He interprets the verse to mean that each one of us should appoint internal “magistrates and officials” for ourselves, “to examine every single aspect of who we are that can be evaluated”, so that we can judge and cast verdict upon ourselves based on our self-evaluations. Besides taking a Biblical verse that could be seen as no longer relevant and making it timeless, the Kotzker Rebbe reminds us of the two most important tasks of this season: deep self-reflection and repentance. He encourages us to examine every single aspect of ourselves. This includes both the big decisions as well as the small everyday choices of how we interact with one another and carry ourselves in the world. Implicit in the Kotzker Rebbe’s teaching is the assertion that we can choose to be different in our actions and our choices. We can create changes that better align our behaviors with our highest ideals and aspirations.
A second hint is found a couple chapters later (Devarim 18:13) as a command:
תָּמִ֣ים תִּֽהְיֶ֔ה עִ֖ם יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃
You must be wholehearted with the LORD your God.
In its biblical context, this command seems to demand that we avoid certain pagan practices. But throughout Jewish ethical literature, we see the exhortation “to be wholehearted” take on a more expansive meaning. One powerful way of understanding wholeheartedness is that it requires us to evaluate our actions and our motives. It has us dig deep and question even our good actions to determine whether we are doing them in a reluctant or rote manner or with our full hearts. It also means we must examine our actions very closely to determine when our motivations are self-serving and set aside the needs of others. Striving for wholeheartedness is aspirational and is surely some of the most demanding work of this season of repentance.
As the Kotzker Rebbe teaches, we must search out our deeds in the most demanding of ways – holding this work to the same high standards we expect of a just legal system. Aiming for wholeheartedness is one of the highest ideals we can set for ourselves. This is the time to do the deep work of teshuvah in which we recognize that while it may be hard work, we can make adjustments, both big and small, in order to walk in God’s ways through lives of service and kindness.