A Sabbath Message: Looking Inward to Determine our Unfinished Business

“Where is this thing called Teshuvah – Repentance – located? the Torah asks…
Don’t look off in the distance, and don’t look outside yourself either, the Torah is telling us, to look at your own heart. Don’t look out the window; look at the window itself.” 

– Rabbi Alan Lew (1943-2009)

As Sabbath arrives this week – the first one of the special Jewish month of Elul – we are in full preparation mode for the High Holidays, arriving in just over three weeks’ time. In his inspiring and life-changing book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (and what has now become an annual read for me), Rabbi Alan Lew gives us a blueprint for what it means to move through this month and entire season. Starting with Tisha B’Av – the 9th Day of Av in the summer and taking us all the way through the Festival of Sukkot – the Feast of Tabernacles to mark the fall harvest at the end of the season, the journey is mapped for us – we have only to take ourselves on this quest to self-discovery.

I have always marveled at the fact that the Jewish High Holidays – Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), the holiest days on our calendar, are both very public celebrations, but also private ones, as well. We are generally out in public (other than perhaps during pandemic periods) in synagogue in big crowds and at big gatherings with friends and family. But they are also quite intimate – lots of time for personal prayer and reflection, both leading up to the day and on the days themselves. As a cantor for many years on these days, this will be my 37th year facilitating High Holiday services – I know this because my niece is turning 37 years old in a month and it was that year that I stepped in for the first time for my very pregnant cantorial sister! And when you are leading services, it is also at once both very public, while at the same time, full of intimate, raw moments between just you and the Divine.

On first glance, this week’s Torah portion called Shoftim – which literally means “judges” – is a straightforward account of the need to set up a proper judicial system for the Israelites. As we embark with Rabbi Lew on this Elul journey, he takes us through the parshiyot – Torah portions of this month to unlock their secrets. For this week, Moses’ last speech to the people before he dies contains the famously quoted line: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20), as he decrees the importance of basic societal structures. But what we read here is really so much more. For what we also learn is that leadership and power is to be limited and divided – not concentrated in one individual in a society. Described here are three sources of leadership in Judaism: Priests, Kings and Prophets – and most importantly, that there should be limits on all three. We are reminded that leadership is about service – not amassing wealth or power. And finally, that our leaders should always be learning, which inspires others to do so, as well.

As it happens, some of the most powerful lessons learned in this parashah (portion) come from the laws related to warfare, an interesting fact. The Torah tells us that at a time of war, the officers of the army must address the people and make them aware of the following: If there is a person who has built a new house but not yet inhabited it, he must return to it and do so. Likewise, if someone has planted a vineyard and has not yet harvested it, he must also return home, lest he die at war and another man harvest it. Finally, if a man is betrothed to a woman, but has not yet had the chance to marry her, he must do so and return home, as again, he may die at war, and another man would have the chance to marry her. The pattern the Torah is presenting is clear.

And so, how does all of this relate to the idea of looking inward and being mindful at this most sacred time? According to Rabbi Lew, the idea here is that if we leave something incomplete, we fall into the state our sages called trafe da’at – a torn mind. In the case of an army, a person in such a state of mind would not be in the right mind-set for warfare. But, for all of us, a mind pulled in many directions does not feel settled or at peace. And at the end of our lives, this is often what we want most. But along the way, on this journey to find wellbeing, we must ask ourselves: “What are the loose ends in my life?” What is the unfinished business?” “What have I left undone?” Lew states that as we embark on the quest that is Elul, we should consider that “when we look out at the world through a torn mind, our experience of the world is torn.” But we have the option to decide how we choose to be mindful. And perhaps the way to Teshuvah – our ultimate goal of Repentance, is to reach through the window of a torn mind to see the suffering in others in our lives, and while we cannot always solve the pain, we can join our hearts together, which will in turn, mend the tear in our fractured world.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom – a Sabbath of peace – and a heart and soul at peace,

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service


Image caption: Now that we are in the month of Elul, the beautiful tradition of blowing the shofar every day, reminds us to awaken to this sacred time of mindfulness. Our sages also teach us that the Divine one is “in the Field” and close to us during this time, as we search our souls and hearts.