Thursday, July 26, 2012

When You Can't be the Judge: Parashat Dvarim

           We all have people in our lives that do things that make us crazy.  Often when someone has an annoying habit, it is 10 times more difficult to deal with when we love them than when they are a stranger.  The more history that we have with a person, the more intimate our relationship is, often the more difficult it is to communicate how devastating their behavior is.  This dynamic is what makes human relationships and communication so difficult -- the more we have invested in a relationship with someone we love, the more difficult it is to share judgments with them.  Our hesitation to criticize the people we love sometimes hurts the relationship, but sometimes it also leads us to be more prudent and sensitive.  The world needs judgments and judges because bad behavior must be identified and confronted.  However,  not all people are equally good or appropriate messengers of those criticisms.
            Moses deals with this difficulty in the beginning of Parashat Devarim.  This week's portion begins with God and Moses reminiscing about their greatest challenges and successes.  In Deuteronomy 1:8-10, we read this exchange between Moses and God:

ח  רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לִפְנֵיכֶם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ; בֹּאוּ, וּרְשׁוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב לָתֵת לָהֶם, וּלְזַרְעָם אַחֲרֵיהֶם. 8 Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the LORD swore unto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them.'
ט  וָאֹמַר אֲלֵכֶם, בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר:  לֹא-אוּכַל לְבַדִּי, שְׂאֵת אֶתְכֶם. 9 And I spoke unto you at that time, saying: 'I am not able to bear you myself alone;
י  יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, הִרְבָּה אֶתְכֶם; וְהִנְּכֶם הַיּוֹם, כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לָרֹב. 10 the LORD your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude.
Moses recounts a difficult exchange he had with the Israelites.  He cannot handle the Israelites alone -- they are too difficult to deal with.  God responded that he had multiplied the Israelites in order to help Moses.
            This is a difficult exchange to understand.  What in particular was so hard for Moses?  And how did multiplying them make life easier for Moses?  In the famous midrash collection, The Yalkut Shimoni, the authors claim that the Moses' difficult was that he could not judge a people he loved so much and for whom he had done so much. (You can read the original Hebrew text by clicking here.)  He could not bear to judge the people who he had taken out of Egypt, the people for whom he parted the Sea of Reeds, the people he fed with manna from heaven.  Therefore, God multiplied the potential judges of Israel to help him in this one task that he could not complete.
            Moses was not a failure as a leader because he could not judge the people Israel.  His inability to judge them was the result of a very human, natural love for the people he led.  Moses certainly had opinions about his flock, many of which were quite harsh.  However, God knew that he could not be the judge and the shepherd at the same time.  He needed to request the voices and the aid of others to fully serve the people Israel.  He knew his own limits, God acknowledged them, and others in the community stepped up to ensure the spiritual health and longevity of the people.
              Judgment is essential for a functional and ethical society.  People who claim not to judge are usually lying -- we all judge and we all should do so.  Rather there are times when we do not judge openly because we are afraid of the social, political, and emotional consequences.  Sometimes that fear is merely cowardice, and at other times it is a signal that we are not the appropriate people to judge.  How can we distinguish cowardice from necessary caution?  If you feel like Moses and cannot judge because of love or intimacy, it is a time to ask for help from others in addressing the problems you see in your loved ones.  If your reticence does not stem from love, but merely a concern for yourself, then it is time to garner the courage to channel your prophetic voice.
Shabbat Shalom