Judging Ourselves Wisely

The following sermon was given by Rabbi Miriam Margles on Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5779.

I want to think with you about judgement. Our theme this Rosh Hashana is Judging Wisely and on this Yom Ha’Din, this Day of Judgement, which sits at the centre of a whole season of reflection, self-evaluation and judgement, I want to name how poor most of us are at judging wisely.

I know that many of us bristle at the word “judgement,” for all the ways that it is so often confused with being judgmental and harsh criticism, with bias and humiliation. I would guess that we have all felt misjudged by others – not seen, misunderstood, a judgment that doesn’t hold the wider truths of who we are.

I will speak for myself and say that when it comes to judging myself, turning an honest eye of assessment on my own actions and inactions, on the whole picture of my faults and my goodness, I see that in some areas of my life, I have untenably high expectations for myself and I am terribly harsh, unforgiving and shaming about them. And in other aspects of my life, my standards for myself are anemic and I am asleep. In these areas I don’t hold myself accountable, I don’t hold myself as capable and don’t make conscious movement forward.

Does this resonate with any of you? Somewhere between feeling terrible about ourselves for everything that we aren’t and feel we can’t, and on the other side, feeling overwhelmed and just letting ourselves off the hook, we squeeze ourselves into a very tight spot that saps our strength, our creative energy and makes the possibility of empowering and important change near impossible.

Today is Yom Ha’Din, Judgement Day. Regardless of everything you can think of that is associated with poor judgement, the prejudice of pre-judgement and self-punishing judgement, I want to put our attention on how we do the essential work of wise judgement for the sake of real repair and transformation. This is the call of Yom Ha’Din.

So what can help us wisely measure the trajectory of our growth? What can help us develop in the clarity and maturity of our moral character, and the sensitive responsiveness of our hearts and minds?

I could turn to many different Jewish sources to guide us. I want to share a text from the Talmud with quite a compelling set of guidelines for our self-assessment. I invite us to listen to them not as yet another yardstick measuring ways we fall short, but as live questions to walk with in our human and beautifully imperfect lives, holding them as joyous inspiration and as bold aspiration.

So – imagine that you have died. You’ve reached the end of a life of however many years and here you stand before your Maker on that final Yom Ha’Din. Whether or not you believe in heaven or God or an afterlife doesn’t matter. You can situate this episode of “This is Your Life” in the seat of your own conscience or you can place it in the expanse of Divine Consciousness.

Rava, the 4th century Babylonian scholar says that when you are led in for Judgement after you die, you will be asked these 6 questions to judge your life:

1) Did you establish regular times for Torah?

2) Did you understand one thing from within another?

3) Did you engage in the mitzvah of “be fruitful and multiply”?

4) Did you conduct business honestly?

5) Did you grapple with wisdom?

6) Did you anticipate Liberation?

Fascinating list!  Let’s look at three of these questions tonight, focusing on wise self-judgement, and we’ll explore the other three tomorrow as we reflect on how we judge others wisely.

1) קבעת עתים לתורה/Kavata itim la’Torah? Did you establish regular times for Torah? Torah here is referring to the breadth and depth of Jewish teachings – the evolving framework for our moral understandings, the stories that reverberate with the depths and truths of humanity and Ultimacy, the practices that shape our character and soul and community, and the vision of our collective, aspirational purpose on this planet. Did you regularly get your hands dirty in the nuances and big questions of Jewish learning?

It’s interesting that the heavenly question of assessment here is not a checklist of mitzvot that you either did or have to confess you didn’t do. It doesn’t seem concerned with what you believe. We will be judged, says Rava, by whether or not we regularly made the probing and wrestling with Jewish wisdom essential to our humanity.

We are living at a time when the moral measuring tools of the broader cultural are broken. Truth is being pummelled daily. Greed is rewarded, regardless of the environmental and human costs. Poverty is accepted as an unfortunate necessity of the best economic system we are willing to come up with. We keep uncovering conspiracies of secrecy that protect reputations and egos instead of stopping harm. And it seems that power is in the hands of those who are the loudest and most intimidating and the best at kicking up fear and finding easy people to blame. This isn’t only the distorted judgement or behaviour of one group. It pulls at all of us to take polarized positions, to demonize the other camp and to justify behaving badly for a cause.

One thing I know for certain is that one lifetime is not long enough to gather the wisdom we need to live a wise life. We depend on the collective intelligence of the moral giants and heart warriors and Sages who came before us – the Akivahs and Liliths, the Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’ and Rabbi Heschels. And so we rely on a regular, robust and intimate conversation with these teachings over our lifetimes. How else are we going to learn to keep our minds clear and sharp rather than clouded by fear, anger, despair and reactivity? How else are we going to learn to be precise, disciplined and widely compassionate in planting alternate values in our hearts and alternate halacha/ways of walking in our feet? The knots of harsh judgement can loosen and untangle when I ask myself, simply and regularly, ‘How can I drink from the wellspring of Torah so I keep sharpening my knowledge, my discernment and sense of sacred purpose?’  Did you regularly make time for Torah?

2) הבנת דבר מתוך דבר/Hevanta davar mitoch davar? Did you understand one thing from within another? This one sounds a little more like a cryptic Harry Potter riddle than a question for self-assessment, but I think the heavenly interviewer is asking us to examine, not only our engagement with learning, but how we reach that learning into the world. Did you practice drawing connections, inferring implications, and tracing the impact of your words and actions as they ripple out beyond you?

The Talmud (Bava Kama 92b) raises an interesting example to train our thinking and in understanding one thing from within another. The Talmud quotes a popular saying – “Don’t throw a rock into the pit you drank water from”. To understand its meaning, you can either be a rosh katan, small headed, narrow thinker, or a rosh gadol – large headed, expansive thinker. A rosh katan would say, “Okay I’m not allowed to throw rocks into the pit I just drank from, but you didn’t say I can’t throw in mud or rotting garbage or toxic waste.”  A rosh katan is the epitome of a 7 year old’s wonderfully literal mind, yelling from the backseat of the car, “What?!  You told me to stop hitting my brother, you didn’t tell me not to kick him!!”

The consciousness of a rosh katan is focused on the minimum that’s required and the maximum they can get away with – not very generous or kind. And yet, we need to bring compassion to the rosh katan, recognizing that whenever we contract into being a rosh katan – it’s probably when we feel like a victim, or when we’re focussed on what we lack rather than what we have, or when we feel isolated and can’t tell that anyone is there for us, so it’s hard to consider others.

A rosh gadol, on the other hand, looks for the broad principle animating the specific words. A rosh gadol would deduce a principle of responsibility and care for something she benefits from. Spinning a web of connection between her needs, her actions and their consequences she would drink clean water from the tap and pause to draw her thinking upstream to the conditions and environmental commitments that make it possible.

Understanding one thing from within another, a rosh gadol would also extend benefit to others. She would say, ‘This is the pit I drank from. I have benefited from it and even though I am satisfied, someone else may need it after me.’  A rosh gadol practices exercising the muscles of generosity and empathy that extend from her own experience and looks for other places to flex them. We can all practice this. Every time you benefit from something, can you pause and say to yourself , ‘may all others experience the same benefit and joy that I do, when I taste this apple, when I lie down in a warm bed and safe home, when I cross a border without fear.’  We can observe what this does to our appreciation and sense of abundance. We can see how it deepens our sense of interconnection with other people. We can watch what this does to our sensitivity to those who don’t have what we do, and how this expands our circle of care and responsibility.

The 16th century commentator, Bezalel ben Abraham Ashkenazi (in Shita Mekubetzet) uses this same teaching to train us along a different trajectory. He says, “Don’t throw a rock into the pit you drank water from” is not a teaching about the pit or the water but about the act of throwing stones. Learning to understanding one thing from within another is, he says, about refining our middot, our ethical character traits and soul-orientations. He teaches that if we throw stones at something inanimate, we will soon throw stones at animals and it won’t be long before we hurl rocks at people.

Rationally the differences are clear between a pit and a person, but the animating principle here is growing the awareness that every action that contains the seeds of harm is on a continuum with real harm. With this example, we’re being challenged to finely monitor and restrict the violence in our hands and the numbness or aggression in our hearts. We can apply this equally to gossip or lying or taking what’s not ours, and so on. When we bemoan gun violence or brutal internet bullying this question for growing wise judgement is asking us to trace our own participation along that continuum, as mild as it may seem, to interrupt it and to instead move ourselves onto a continuum of good.

This a demanding yardstick for self-judgement and self-awareness. But the question challenges us in very compelling ways as we become less interested in evaluating success or failure, but rather in how we keep returning to these questions of awareness, sensitivity and consequences. How do we come to terms with the seeds of harm within us so that we keep growing into a force of good?

3) עסקת בפריה ורביה? Asakta be’fri’ya u’revi’ya? Did you engage in the mitzvah of “be fruitful and multiply”? Now this one sounds a little saucy, (wink wink nudge nudge) but as we consider what guides wise self-judgement, I hear this question asking us to examine how our actions and patterns of behaviour today will affect the generations after us. Have we fruitfully engaged in setting up all our children well and wisely for good lives – more free, more wholesome, with more reason for hope and tools for resilience?

A famous Talmudic story tells of man named Honi who saw an elderly man planting a carob tree. Honi stops and asks why such an old man is planting a carob. ‘It will take 70 years for the tree to bear fruit and you, old man, will never enjoy it.’  The elderly man answers – ‘I came into a world filled with carob trees that others planted for me. So I leave this world, planting trees for others.’

This life-assessing question – did you engage in being fruitful and multiplying – urges each of us to judge how you have planted the best of who you are, in lasting ways, so that your goodness will bear fruit into the next generation. Can this question stir you to cherish each instance of good that you do? This is a crucial part of wise and balanced self-judgment – knowing our goodness and making it essential to our lives that we consciously and concretely send goodness down the line.

This question also challenges each of us to invest vigor and discipline in the work of repair – out in the world, and repair in our own souls and psyches, so that we do what we can to clean up the damage and the wounds that the next generation inherits from us. With a focus on being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth, wisely judging our efforts in the work of repair, becomes framed not by fear or guilt and not merely bound by duty, but also as a creative and generous labour of love.

Friends, these three questions set out rigorous standards to strive toward. They require regular practice and attuned self-awareness. Each one requires changing the states of our minds and hearts as well as engaging our action. And I think that they are each exciting and generative as continua to grow along, rather than measures of success or failure. This year, may we gather the tools, the practice, the inspired call and the insight to move from denial to honesty, from self-deception to clear and wise judgment, from harsh criticism to a loving investment in our strong and steady growth, and a loving investment in real healing and transformation in this world.