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{Originally posted to Rabbi Weinberg’s website, The Foundation Stone}

It is with trepidation and confidence that I add a new practice to our tradition of auspicious times in the Jewish calendar and those not. The new practice will read, “One should not deal with a bureaucracy during the month of Elul as we approach Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement.” The commentaries will explain that a negative experience with a bureaucracy may negatively color one’s experience of the Day of Judgement.

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I have spent my days since the beginning of the Hebrew month arguing with my insurance company, fighting a parking ticket online, and pestering our internet provider to restore our service. I find myself praying that my interaction with the Heavenly Tribunal will not be as frustrating as my dealings with the systems and arbitrary decisions of the people with whom I have spent all my time this week. It’s the stuff of nightmares, the first time in memory that I have a knot in my stomach as I consider the upcoming Judgement.
If only arbitrary systems were limited to government and large corporations. Dealing with higgledy-piggledy religious decisions is far more damaging of our states of mind facing the Days of Awe. I mentally scream in frustration when someone describes the stochastic decisions of a school or Jewish court, “Don’t they know how this can shape a person’s perception of dealing with God the Ultimate Judge!” The Torah insists that God is not happy with such behavior.

“Justice, justice, shall you pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20).” Nachmanides explains the repetition of “justice” as teaching us that, “If you will judge yourself, you will live. If not He will judge you (Translated by Rabbi Dr Charles Chavel zt”l).” The primary quality of anyone judging another, whether it is regarding authorizing a prescription, fighting a parking ticket, monetary obligations, or religious observance, is that the judge first know how to judge himself. If I cannot honestly examine my behavior, how can I possibly judge someone else’s? A judge must know how to distill the essence of his actions before he can judge another’s.

Such personal evaluations, Cheshbon haNefesh, are often a source of terrible frustration. By which standards should we judge ourselves? How much shall we expect of ourselves? The only people I know who can consistently make such a Cheshbon haNefesh are people who understand how to balance higher expectations with awareness of where they stand in life. An honest Cheshbon haNefesh demands compassion for myself. Only a person who has mastered the balance and compassion can possibly listen in judgement to another person present his or her case. A judge who will first judge himself will add life to a justice system. A judge who has failed to make an honest Cheshbon haNefesh will murder a supplicant’s sense of justice. Whether as a parent, teacher, rabbi, or bureaucrat, we constantly make judgements that affect others. Have we first mastered the art of the Cheshbon haNefesh?

We take our first Elul steps toward Rosh Hashanah with the confidence that the One Who judges us demands that a judge first practice self-judgement, and that whatever God demands of us, He first practices himself. No bureaucracy. No arbitrary decisions. Only understanding and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom

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