Reading parashat hashavua has felt particularly difficult this week. Too close to things happening in our country, in Israel, and in the world as a whole. Rules about corrupt leadership, reminders of how to behave in war time, how to set up a just society in the absence of justice, how to contend with murder. Sometimes Parashat Shoftim feels like a call to pursue justice - and that it definitely is. But for me, as we enter the month of Elul, it feels more like a call to examine those parts of ourselves and our world that are falling short of that goal.
So where do we start? How do we go about looking closely at ourselves and finding those places that need improvement?
We get a hint in the section of the parashah about arei miklat, cities of refuge. If someone kills another accidentally, without intent, they can flee to one of these cities and escape the vengeance of the surviving relatives of the person they unwittingly killed. Unintentional manslaughter is not the same as murder and the Torah demands that the accidental killer be protected. However, the Torah warns about these cities being abused by those who killed not by accident, but with malice aforethought.
וְכִי־יִהְיֶה אִישׁ שֹׂנֵא לְרֵעֵהוּ וְאָרַב לוֹ וְקָם עָלָיו וְהִכָּהוּ נֶפֶשׁ וָמֵת וְנָס אֶל־אַחַת הֶעָרִים הָאֵל׃ וְשָׁלְחוּ זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ וְלָקְחוּ אֹתוֹ מִשָּׁם...
If, however, a man who is the enemy of another lies in wait and sets upon [the victim] and strikes a fatal blow and then flees to one of these towns, the elders of his town shall have him brought back from there...(Deuteronomy 19:11-12)
The Midrash (Sifrei Devarim 186-187) picks up on the wording in the Torah's description of the type of killer who cannot seek refuge: "A man who is the enemy of another" - in the Hebrew אִישׁ שֹׂנֵא לְרֵעֵהוּ (ish soneh l're-eihu). These words recall another, more famous, verse, the instruction from Vayikra of וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ (v'ahavta l'reiakha kamokha), to love our fellows as ourselves. In the explanation of the Midrash, someone who does not attend to loving his fellow person, a seemingly less difficult mitzvah, will eventually come to disregard them and foster hatred for them, making it a short journey to being able to kill them, transgressing a far more serious command.
The Midrash teaches that neglecting smaller obligations opens the door to trampling on larger ones. In these first few days of Elul, I see in it an answer to the question I posed above - how do we begin to look within and take note of where we need to recalibrate ourselves?
Start by noticing the small stuff - the corners we cut, especially in our relationships with each other, the tiny insensitivities, the minor failings we let slip by because they're not so big of a deal. As the Midrash sees it, these "not so big of a deal" actions desensitize us to the point where we can do grave harm to another person.
This process can also work in the opposite direction. If we resensitize ourselves to those small transgressions and do the work to repair them, we will be led not toward callousness and disregard, but toward love and connection. May we experience an abundance of both in the coming new year.