Labor Day is right around the corner. I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but Labor Day is considered the “meteorological end of summer.” It seems to me that it’s certainly true that the secular month of September does have a unique feel to it. Evenings get cooler. We light candles a little earlier each Shabbat. We look for recipes to use up all that extra zucchini. I’ve even seen some leaves that have started to turn. September feels different, perhaps different in a way that August doesn’t seem all that different from July, and maybe January and February seem to slide into each other. It does feel like the end of something. Maybe lots of things.
Setting aside the secular for a moment, this week’s parsha— Shoftim—may also signal a kind of spiritual end. We are now in the month of Elul, and we are headed toward our High Holy Days. When we see requests for tickets for the holidays, and we submit our names for the Book of Remembrance, we know that’s where we are. And we are very far along in Eytz Hayyim, well into the thousands. We read more of Moshe’s instructions to the Israelites, and we know—and he knows—that his end quickly approaches.
But you could also argue that Shoftim is about beginnings. This parsha famously (and repeatedly) commands us to pursue justice. And we see beginnings everywhere here. How judges and magistrates should be appointed. How to begin to act once we have entered the Promised Land. Appointing a king, and the command that a king should write not one but TWO Torahs. How to enter into battle, and even who is required to serve and who is exempt. We are instructed to set up asylum cities, cities of refuge to protect those who have unintentionally killed someone else. The instructions that we see in Shoftim—for battles, kings, judges, prophets, and priests—seem to focus on what is vital to the creation of a just, new nation. A nation that does not, as the parsha tells us, imitate the abhorrent practices of other peoples. A nation that pursues justice eagerly and impartially. A nation that represents a new beginning for all of humanity. That’s a very high bar.
The concept of justice is a radical idea, an idea that began with the creation of a Jewish people. And there’s a word that Shoftim repeats that is worth highlighting. That Hebrew word is b’kerev, which is repeated no fewer than ten times. “B’kerev” means, literally, in the midst of, and its repetition makes clear that we cannot even have justice without being a people, in the midst of people. Am Israel. Because justice means being among, justice is what makes us a community. Among you, among your own people, in your midst—these are all ways of reminding us that there is no I without we, that we cannot strive for justice without recognizing the humanity of every other. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “life involves not only the satisfaction of selfish needs, but also the satisfaction of a divine need for human justice and nobility.”
But b’kerev also has a deeper, less literal, meaning. The word can also mean “to approach” or to “draw close.” In its noun form, the word can also mean “inside the human body,” or “at our core.” So the repetition of b’kerev invites us to consider not just what is outside of us, but also what lies within us—our values, our character, our individual commitment to just thoughts and deeds. To walking in God’s way.
I opened this dvar by pointing to the familiarity of this time of year, and the ways that the secular month of September and the Hebrew month of Elul lead us—inevitably—toward our Days of Awe, our High Holy Days. But we also have to acknowledge the unfamiliarity of this period of time. We are probably thinking about the Yizkor book, but it is likely that we have no plans to visit a cemetery. We may be considering buying seats for the holidays, but we also know that those seats will be virtual. Is anyone obsessing over their meal for Rosh Hashanah? Usually, Diane has a plan by July. This year, she tells me, “we’ll pay it by ear.” All of us—Jews and non-Jews—are in the midst of the familiar that has become so completely foreign. But, as Jews, this feels particularly poignant because we have to rethink all of our traditions. Shoftim may emphasize being “in the midst of,” but now that phrase—for me, at least—conjures up fears of closeness, risks of infection. So what will we make of these Days of Awe? How will we inspire ourselves to seek consolation (as the next few Haftorot emphasize) and, eventually, forgiveness, through these next few weeks?
On one level, each of us will have to answer that question for ourselves. On the other hand, we also have a communal message, a way that we can all continue to share this New Year, these awesome days of introspection and transformation. As you know, we will conduct services virtually this year. We had a taste of this experience during our Passover services, and we continue to use zoom to conduct weekly Shabbat services. I’m so proud of our community and your flexibility and willingness to create new ways of worshipping. Think about it—had anyone even heard of zoom last year? As you also know, health and safety must be our first priority. To that end, our Ritual Committee has been working zealously to create virtual High Holy Day services that will continue to inspire and connect us. You will soon hear from Temple leadership more specific details about the schedule and connected events, but, for now, I want to express my personal optimism about the power of our community to weather this storm and to emerge even stronger. We are planning services that will bring new as well as traditional voices together, and perhaps even offer a few surprises!
Let us pray that the lessons of Shoftim continue to guide us, even as we leave this parsha behind. That Shoftim and its Haftorah of consolation remind us that justice is in each of us, and that how we walk with God does not depend on physical structures or even sharing a table for seudah, but rather is, and always will be, in our hearts and our deeds.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman