#BlogElul – Judge
So, this summer, mostly I worked. However, the time I had off I enjoyed. For instance, I went to a music festival. There was a singer, there – a singer who inadvertently reminded me of my opinions on judging. I think judgement is important. However, I think judgement of others is always a bad idea. Oh, sometimes we need to mitigate the danger that someone causes by locking that person up – but should we judge? Maybe I’d feel differently if it was my kid that was hurt by someone. I’m sure I judge in a jiffy. My heroes, however will remain those who don’t judge, even when they could. And yes, when it’s me or mine that are hurt, I have a right to judge. Do I have a right to judge when it’s a general injustice?
I don’t think it’s a good idea to judge others, in such a case. First, we know nothing. Oh, we can see the terrible plight that a person is in, and we can (and should) help, but if we see someone being aggressive, we have to be careful, because we know nothing. It reminds me of that story where the scorpion asks the tortoise for a ride across the Jordan, and says, “it’s safe, if I bite you we both drown.” Then, the scorpion bites the tortoise halfway through and when asked why by the dying tortoise answers, “well, this is the Middle East”. We don’t know. We don’t know if the tortoise’s government destroyed the scorpion’s father’s livelihood, or if a nasty tortoise had once refused to give a ride to the scorpion’s big brother when he was ill and he died or what. Furthermore, it’s tricky to judge even if we know everything.
Because judging is dangerous. Because then, the tortoises go away and say “scorpions are murdering cheats” and the next tortoise tries to drown the next scorpion on purpose and…When we say “how dare those evil Muslim terrorists do that terrible stuff?” people hear “….Muslim…terrible.” People have very selective hearing. So, better if we judge only ourselves and say, “how can we prevent terrorists?” Maybe we need to have a better security package that deals with terrorists. Maybe we need a better welcome package that deals with refugees. Maybe we need a better mental health package that deals with troubled people. Maybe we don’t have an answer. The point is, we do better if we don’t accuse anyone.
So, when that singer sang that “Israeli might is hurting the poor Palestinian refugees” song, he may not have realized it, but some people heard “Israeli…hurting” and turned it into “Jew…hurting” and thought it justified drawing a swastika on our driveway. Or maybe it justified that attack on that old guy in the funny Jewish clothes – he was probably one of the bad “Israeli might” types – he looked like he might be! And so the next day, when the scorpion saw the tortoise…
Am I saying we shouldn’t criticize Israel? Of course we should! Israel does stupid things. Israel does things that make me cry sometimes. However, I think there are ways to talk about it and write about it, to sing about it and vote about it that promote peace and justice, not hatred and more scorpions on the edge of the Jordan. What about finding those who want peace and work for it and singing about them? What about singing about the things that can be done? What about singing about how broken things are without accusing anyone? Because things are broken, and you can say that Israel brought all its problems on itself, but does that answer anything? Because, yes, Israel has made some decisions not everyone agrees with.
Not like Canada or the US. We’re not living on stolen land! (We are.) We didn’t deliberately kick people out of their homes (we did.) We certainly didn’t break up families, hurt and kill children, create strange rules for citizenship rights and practice cultural genocide! (We did.) And if we did in the past, we’re not doing it now! (We are. Look at food availability, clean water availability, healthcare availability and educational options in certain native communities. Go ahead. Take a look.) And if we had made those decisions, here in Canada, we totally would understand if some of the Native people went terrorist! There’d be no reprisals, no one would use disproportionate force and we’d listen to their concerns…Ok, I’m getting a bit sarcastic here. I’m judging. It’s so easy to fall into that trap! But at least I’m judging myself!
Seriously, though. Things in Israel are messy. You know that. I know that. I’ll even blog about it at some point. Today, however, I just want to take a step back and say, “don’t judge negatively”. Don’t. Read whatever holy book it is that tells you that if you’re going to express anger at a situation of injustice, make sure you don’t express it against another person or group of people. Let all feel safe at a music festival. Let all feel safe at a parade. (And yes, I haven’t been to a Gay pride parade since I saw a Queers Against Israeli Apartheid sign. What? It wasn’t about me? It was fine? OK, but internet comments about this issue often use Israeli and Jew interchangeably. Some anti-Semites have used Palestinian issues as justification for attacks. How would the average gay person feel about a group called Jews against Homosexual Rapists? Hey, it’s only against the rapists, it’s not about you!)
Save your judgement and anger against yourself. Say, “I should do more to help.” Heck, say “you should do more to help.” Just don’t say “those bad, bad, bad people did it”. Be for, not against. Be for peace, not against war. Be for equality, not against men or even patriarchy. Be for Palestine *and* for Israel, not against anyone. Don’t judge anyone – or at least, “…judge everyone favourably” as per the Pirkey Avot. Then, maybe, the tortoise will be able to offer the scorpion a ride, and the scorpion may be able to accept it, and both could somehow get to the other side of the Jordan in peace.
I just want to say how nice it is when people don’t. Judge, that is. I know this one is obvious, and yet it isn’t. We all judge. We have to. There are billions of decisions to make each day, from the tiny and utterly unimportant (which sock should put on first, the left or the right?) to the life-changing and essential ones. (Which city should I live in? Which person should I marry? Where should my kids go to school?) Those decisions require us to judge – to decide not only our preferences but also our opinions of other people and their preferences.
So, we judge – and sometimes, we only have a few minutes to make our opinion. What? That person talks slowly, stutters, and takes a long time to figure out what to say? She’s probably not very bright. This other one reacted with a smile and asked “can I help you”. He’s likely to be a kind person. Here’s someone yelling and throwing things – she’s an aggressive person with difficulties controlling herself. We have to make these decisions, because if I need assistance, I’m more likely to go to the smiling person asking “can I help you?” than the person throwing things or the one stuttering. Of course, we can be wrong. Maybe the stutterer is an autistic genius, the person saying “can I help you” is smiling because he can see you’re weak and he wants to take advantage of you, and the person throwing things is angry at a criminal who just stole your purse. Still, we need to make decisions and we do.
That’s expected – although for the parent of the brilliant but stuttering child or the aggressive but justice oriented child, it can be utterly heart-breaking. There are many people who decide such children are slow or bad, when actually they’re lovely people who just have different ways of doing things. Often, these people are teachers or advocates for the child, and their decision has huge life changing effects on the child’s future. It’s hard when a kid is dumped into a “bad kids” classroom (by whatever name one is sugar-coating it these days), or kept out of certain programs. It’s hard when teachers expect less from a kid or other kids tease and ignore. It’s hard when there are no aids or supports that would make it possible for the child’s actual brilliance and caring to shine through.
So, when one finds a person who doesn’t judge harshly, who wears rose-coloured glasses and sees us all as good people, it’s pretty special. Such a person assumes that the stutterer is a brilliant kid who needs help with speech and that the supposed bully is someone kind who needs clear routines and limits and guidelines. (Of course, the other kids around need to be kept safe – that goes without saying. There is just more than one way to accomplish that.) Such a person finds a way to include everyone and bring those traits out. Even if the bully is mean, she probably has a nice streak somewhere – most kids do. Even if a child is delayed in an area, there is probably something he can excel at – most kids can. Such a person is a treasure, a true mensch, someone who sees people the way that God intended us to see them. Of course this person is acting according to some of the better tenets of Judaism. In the Pirke Avot, Rabbi Joshua ben Perachya is quoted as saying: “…judge everyone favorably.” Maimonides, explains: each person is believed to have goodness within them, and anyone who judges is obliged to look for that goodness. Teachers and religious leaders judge.
So, it’s a blessing when they don’t, or rather, when they judge everyone favourably. My kids can occasionally require a great deal of favourable judgement. I have kids who could be described on alternate days (and as alternate kids) as sweet or nasty, super-slow or super-fast, brilliant or struggling with learning, friendly or anti-social. When I find a community where my kids can fit in, it’s a god-send. I am so happy to say that the Jewish community has been there again and again. In two different Shuls (yay, Temple Iyr HaMelech in Kingston and Temple Emmanu-El Beth Shalom in Montreal) and counting have my little ones been accepted, included and welcomed. There, I have rarely had to face that heartbreaking moment when I know as a parent that my children have been judged, and harshly at that. There are schools on both sides of the judgement question. There are afterschool activities on both sides. (Again, yay, for amazing piano teachers.)
I am nowhere near that much of a mensch. In my head, I form opinions about the children I teach and the strengths they can bring to the table. The best I can do is apply a filter between my brain and my mouth. However, I’m sure some of those opinions show! I try. I make a concerted, daily effort to judge everyone as good. This has ended me up in some bizarre and rather fascinating situations, in fact, but I have never regretted it. It’s a character trait worth developing, and one that, when I see it in others, is worth admiring.
Oh, the images associated with judging, and especially at this time of year! I can picture them vividly some days. I’ll share what I see with you and you can tell me if it rings true – if it looks right.
You walk into a room – you can’t see the wall, you can’t see floor or ceiling very clearly, but maybe it’s a bit like an assembly hall or a court room. There are definitely shadowy figures at the sides – whether they are audience or record keepers, monitors or guards you do not know. They are not shadowy because of darkness, they are shadowy because you cannot seem to focus precisely on their shapes. Their shapes do not stay in your mind, as if your mind doesn’t have quite enough capacity to hold them. The more you try to examine them, the harder they are to make out. Pictures and ideas that you understand appear in your head. They look like angels with wings standing stern with arms crossed, They look like random people, sitting around observing the proceedings. They look like newspaper reporters, or dragons, secretaries or storks. The images flicker and you realize each of them has as much accuracy as the other. Your mind settles on an image that works for you, stays there for a while, and then moves to another. The room is quite bright – the light so piercing that it should hurt your head, but strangely soft, too – so instead of causing pain, it calms and strengthens. Most of the room is like the recording figures, hard to perceive clearly because there’s more going on than one can see. The only clear part of the room is the line of people in which you stand.
For you are in a line-up. People stand in front of you, all walking towards a grand table on which rest two books, one crisp and clear and white, and one bent and broken, torn and sad looking, dark, but not a nice black – more a dirty brown-black-green which makes you feel uneasy. A quill pen is being used to write, first in the one book, then the other. The image flickers – the pen is now a shepherd’s staff, held just above people’s paths, with two different paths ahead of the staff. The image flickers once again. The staff becomes a mirror, held before people, showing their true reflection. Another blink of your eyes. It’s a balance now, weighing good deeds and bad on the scale.
Sins are what is being weighed. All the times that a wrong choice was made, that something important was missed. As you look, you realize that although you are not the person at the front of the line, the sins are yours. It is the time that you made a promise to your kid to take care of something important and forgot to do so that’s being carefully written in that book. The scale holds the money you spent frivolously when you had bills that needed paying. Under the staff, you can see the disappointed faces of the friends you didn’t find time to contact. In the mirror, you see your face the last time you had that screaming fit of hysterics. It is overwhelming, heart-breaking, unending. Sin after sin, letter after letter, detail after detail, every mistake of the last year (and your life before, if there was anything left unresolved) – every time you missed the mark is there in stark relief. You want to look away, but you cannot. It goes on and on until you are certain you’ve been there much longer than the year it took to live through it all – until you feel you’ve been there forever. You are broken , undone, despairing.
And in the second column of that same dark book you see the consequences. There are your visions of fire and brimstone, of all of the horrible deaths of the Unetane Tokef (the prayer calling us to reflect on the year during the high holidays.) There, down the dark path behind the shepherd’s staff are the more mundane results of your actions. That same boring job, the distance between you and your loved ones, your body wrecked through careless misuse. After the catalogue of your sins, the punishments seem almost reasonable.
Finally, you wrench your eyes to the side and look at that other book – the bright one. Is there anything there at all? Did you do anything right? You did. Every positive choice you made is here too. Every time you picked up a piece of garbage on the street and put it away, every kind word you said, every day you kept going though you really wanted to collapse and every time you didn’t scream although you were hurt – they have been noted. You may have felt no-one knew – now, there is an audience who does. You stand a little straighter. Although the future in the mirror still holds difficulties – there’s still that job, and the hard relationships and the illness – you know that these are not something you are to blame for. You realize that you’re looking forward to working through the challenges, and remember with a rueful smile that the reward for a job well done is a harder job. You look up.
For there is Someone holding the pen, the staff, the balance, the mirror. The light now gets unimaginably bright and it is only because of a veil that you are not consumed by it. Your mind tries to resolve what you see behind the veil – a Judge with a pen and a gavel? A Shepherd with the staff? An Earth-Mother holding the mirror? A blind Lady Justice with a scale? You cannot even try to understand. Even Moses could only see the tefilin knot – the very very back – of God’s head. All you know is that God is There and that God is judging.
And you are next in line. The line has moved forward and you are next. You reach out, hoping for a positive verdict and your hand is enveloped in Something – not a hand, but the very essence of hand, holding and supporting you in a way you hadn’t been supported since you first learned to walk, the hand of a Parent and a Friend, a Lover and a Ruler. With your hand so held, you realize it doesn’t matter to you any longer which way the balance tips. You are on your path into the next year. The only thing that matters is that you have been found worthy of being so judged.
As Elul starts, all I can think is ‘not yet!’ I am not ready. I haven’t done all the things I want to be judged on this year. In fact, looking back over my post in Tishrei (here is a link to last year’s Elul and Tishrei – http://wingnutfamily.wordpress.com/) where I hoped this would be the year, I can say definitively – this was not the year. This was not the year I became a full-time teacher. It was a hard year, as far as work goes, and I am happy to have done as well as I did, but it was not the sterling success I thought it would be. This was not the year in which I tithed. Yes, I increased my charitable donations from none to 2% of salary, but I certainly didn’t tithe. This was not the year in which I lost weight – in fact, I gained a few pounds. This was not the year where my relationships magically became perfect. There was noise and distance and difficulty. This was not the year in which I became super-organized and had a magically clean room. My room continues to be a disaster at times, liveable at others, too much stuff always. My budget didn’t magically become perfect either. I still seem to spend about what I make and not set aside the lovely amounts of money I should. This was totally not the year.
So, I’m not ready. I’m not ready for Elul or the High Holidays. I’m not ready for all of the people I will need to deal with. I am not ready to start another year of constant change and constant unknowns, as I substitute wherever and whenever and teaching whatever someone else needs. I’m not ready to carry this load, which feels like it is getting heavier and less manageable all the time.
Maybe if I hurry, I can do it all in Elul? I can find a full-time job, which will pay enough to cover all my debts and have enough left over to save for a course, and I’ll lose tons of weight, give a bunch of spare money to charity, call all of the people and do all of the favours I haven’t had enough time to do, perfectly clean my room, and oh, master 3 languages, 2 instruments and a martial art? Maybe I can do it all while remaining friendly and positive, getting enough sleep and plenty of exercise and spending a lot of time with my children.
But I didn’t manage it in the other 11 months – what makes me think I’ll do it now? And if I can’t do it now, what makes me think I’ll do it ever? What’s the point of Teshuva, of repentance and trying to do better, of goals and plans – if I just make the same mistakes, don’t do any better and fail to meet any of my goals. I am not spiritually ready to say sorry for my mistakes, because I know part of that is not making the same mistakes in the future, and I don’t know if I can do that.
So, I focus on achievements. I look at what I did accomplish. Was it enough? Some tzedaka. Some teaching. Some writing. Some talking (quite a bit of talking) with people in my family. I look at what I talked about trying. Some of it, I tried. Some I didn’t. A lot of it – just holding on. I stubbornly continued to try to be a member of my family, to be a good parent, to be a good friend, to be healthy, to work, to be a good teacher. I stubbornly continued to try to be a good Jew and a good person. I wrote, I sang, I smiled, I taught, I talked, I prayed – I lived every day of those 11 months, and I held on. Maybe that’s meaningless. Maybe more letting go would have been better. Still, that’s what I chose and that’s what I did. That is what I have to bring to judgement.
It’s not enough. The mistakes outshine the achievements, and it’s embarrassing to even try to list where I should be according to my standards (which, for myself at least, are somewhat high, I know that.) It’s nowhere near enough, but it’s what I got, and maybe, it does as a starting point for teshuva. Maybe that’s a place I can turn from, the knowledge that I will persist in my path, and keep trying even if I don’t always succeed. Focussing not on my successes but my attempts – that gives me courage and helps me to be ready for doing the work that Elul asks me to do.