“You shall not judge unfairly… Justice, justice you shall pursue.”

If I was asked to sum up the Torah in ten words or less, these words from this week’s Torah portion (Shoftim) would be my choice. In the original Hebrew it’s even more succinct; each phrase consists of just three words.

If I was given just five more words, I’d add “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Which in Hebrew is also a three-word phrase.

Nine words in Hebrew; 15 in English. They are enough to guide us as we make our way through the world with open hearts and minds, caring about our families and our communities.

The Torah is filled with laws – 613 of them.  But the essential message of the Torah is deceptively simple. Pursue justice. Be fair. Love others. Welcome the stranger and the homeless.

Easier said than done, but that doesn’t mean we have the option, or the right, to stop trying.  This month, while we prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe, the High Holy-Days, is a good time to take stock of where we’ve been and where we’d like to go.

And if ever there was a time to pay attention to the words of this particular Torah portion, it is now. It is called Shoftim, judges, and its opening verses remind us:

‘Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates, which your God gives you… and they shall judge the people with just judgement. You shall not pervert judgement, nor take a bribe… Justice, only justice shall you pursue…” (Deut. 16:18-20)

On the surface the message is simple. But Rav James Jacobson-Maisels wrote powerfully this week about a deeper message:

“We are asked to put “judges” at our “gates” so that we act properly, so that our eyes are not blinded and our thoughts are not distorted. On a personal-psychological level, this passage of Torah is asking us to monitor our sense-gates, the way the world comes into us, and to discern what is wise and what is not.”

This week a woman told me that someone at my synagogue mentioned that her skirt was too short, and so she stopped coming to our services. I was appalled and embarrassed that a member of my congregation, which is known for being warm, welcoming, and open to all, would say such a thing.

It seems odd that anyone in this congregation would comment on someone’s attire, since the “dress code” (if you can call it that) is Florida casual;  many women wear capris and sleeveless shirts, men wear sandals and in hot weather shorts, very few women wear dresses, and it’s virtually unheard of for a man to wear a tie, much less a jacket.

But what bothered me most was the judgemental aspect of the comment. The visitor is a woman who I like and admire. She is smart and funny and I hope she’ll choose to get past this incident and join the congregation, because we will all benefit from her presence. Whoever said this to her was looking at the wrong thing — they were looking at her clothing and not the person.

I wrote to the congregation and said that I want to be very clear: I do not care what people wear to synagogue. I care that people believe it is important for their minds, their spirits, and their souls to be at services, to pray with others in community. Even if I had objected to the visitor’s attire, and I did not, I would have been happy to see her there.

So here is my blessing, to myself, to my congregants, and to all of us:

When we take it upon ourselves to judge one another, may we be blessed to judge with open minds and hearts. May we remember that there is one True Judge to whom we all must answer, whether you imagine that judge to be God or your conscience. May we remember that each person is carrying heavy burdens and that each of us needs the support of a community to thrive. And may we remember the simple rule our mothers taught: If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.


Note to Kol HaNeshama members: Thank you for the positive responses to the letter I sent you before Shabbat. I knew I could count on you to be supportive of my message! The blog post above is an expanded version of the original letter, as most people who read this blog are not members of the congregation and need a little more context.