by Rabbi Howard Ruben, Head of School

The rhythm of transition from summer days to school days echoes the rhythm of transition from the closing days of the Jewish year to the High Holy Days. Our attention turns from summer’s aimless moments to school’s purposeful days, from carefree activities to careful self-reflection. 

This week the JCHS Professional Community (ProCom) worked together on campus to prepare for the coming school year. This week also started the Hebrew month of Elul, which winds down the Jewish year and comes just before Rosh Hashanah. For many the month of Elul begins a season of introspection and self-reflection.  

This summer also brought renewed attention to the U. S. Supreme Court, its justices, and our hopes that they advance or discern justice even when it seems elusive. But justices are only human – as confirmed by a story about Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. when an impressive full-length portrait of him was painted for Harvard Law School. On seeing the portrait — showing a handsome face, flowing robe, and distinguished white hair — Holmes exclaimed, “That isn’t me. But it’s a darn good thing for people to think it is!” 

So it is with preparing for the High Holy Days, we need clarity and courage to discern our authentic selves with humility — as distinct from how others might see us — as we judge our behaviors from the year coming to a close. 

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, also centers on judging and justice.  In it we read a familiar refrain, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof (justice, justice, shall you pursue).” (Deuteronomy 16:20.) The Hebrew root for tzedek is broadly used throughout Torah. For example, in Leviticus 19:35-36, the term is applied to marketplace weights and measures. At another spot in this week’s Torah portion, Deuteronomy 16:18, the term is applied to balancing conduct and consequences.

My friend and teacher Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan draws a lesson from these different examples: Justice (tzedek) fundamentally is about restoring or pursuing balance. Pursuing justice, in other words, means seeking to restore harmony and balance in our world.

There’s a clue in the first verse of the Torah portion about how we might begin to do that: “Judges and officers you shall appoint to you.” As used here, “you” is in the singular; which I take to mean that we need to begin with the singular individual, with ourselves. We can bring harmony, balance and, ultimately, justice, to the world only if we make it real for ourselves. To be real with ourselves requires humility. 

This Torah lesson always comes as Elul and the season of introspection begins. It comes as a reminder we can only bring justice to the world after we have fairly judged ourselves. We judge ourselves to ensure we are not self-righteous or conceited. And to ensure the image we carry of ourselves is in balance with reality, we also apply the same generosity toward judging ourselves that we aspire to apply to others. Honesty and compassion; integrity and mercy; justice and lovingkindness. 

A Hasidic story about a revered village mayor typifies the Jewish pursuit of justice and lovingkindness. The mayor was known for his acts of kindness and justice – for how he almost single-handedly brought more healing and righteousness into the world. When the mayor died his followers were sure he rose to heaven. One night the dead mayor appeared to someone in a dream. The dreamer asked, “How is it in heaven, tell me?” The mayor answered, “Heaven is awful! Sure it’s beautiful. But everything is in harmony. There are no opportunities to do acts of lovingkindness, no opportunities to pursue justice.”

A famous Talmud passage celebrates several prophets for capturing the essence of all Torah in a concentrated number of principles. The prophet Micah (8th century BCE) brings it all together. Micah distills all of Torah to three actions, “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.” (Micah 6:8, cited in Makkot 23b-24a.) 

As we transition from summer to school, may we each have the wisdom to judge ourselves carefully, clearly, and with humility. And may we have the strength to pursue both lovingkindness and justice in the year ahead.