By Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben, Head of School

The default setting in Zoom is to mirror our self-view. Why? Because the mirror image presents a self-view that’s familiar. It’s the one we see each morning in the mirror. Without that default setting, we’d get confused and look backwards to ourselves. But that mirror image is not how others see us. 

This time of the Jewish year is like a mirror. In fact, the entire Hebrew month, Elul, which started this week and leads into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a mirror. And like the mirror image of Zoom, it’s important to admit that while a mirror view is familiar, it’s also slightly different from how others see us. 

This week’s Torah portion opens with the suggestion we need to see ourselves more authentically. It begins, “appoint for yourself judges . . . to govern the people with righteousness.” (Deut. 16:18.) 

The Sfat Emet (19th century Polish Hasidic leader and talmudist) comments on the oddity that this mitzvah is voiced in the singular (“yourself” not “yourselves”). From this, he draws the affirmation that each of us is empowered to be our own true judge.

Sfat Emet explains that judging ourselves authentically without deceit is crucial. He bases this on another mitzvah oddity in this week’s Torah portion. The mitzvah of tzedek (“justice”) in verse 16:20 is one we are told to “pursue.” He notes this is the only time in Torah where this language is applied to a mitzvah. Similarly, he observes the mitzvah of avoiding false words in Exodus 23:7 also includes a unique phrase to “keep far away.” Sfat Emet reads these two oddities together to teach that pursuit of justice depends on keeping away from falsehoods. 

In other words, judging ourselves authentically depends on our avoiding self-deceit. We cannot just rely on the image we see in the mirror. We have to be able to see ourselves as others see us.  

In the weeks ahead, I encourage each of us to imagine a group of our friends sitting down to judge us. They will likely see us with both clarity and kindness. Now imagine adding to the group someone who sees us very differently from how we see ourselves—taken together what would the group say?  

To whom would the group say I should apologize for what I did this past year? What would they tell me I need to do to make up with someone whom I hurt or wronged in the last year? How would they encourage me to grow or change in the year ahead?

Each of us has the power to see past the false image we carry of ourselves. May we feel empowered in the weeks ahead to shape the new year according to the image we carry of whom we seek to become.