Shoftim: Finding Clarity in the Fog

| parsha reflection |

This week’s torah portion, or parsha, is called shoftim, Hebrew for “judges.” Before he dies, Moses delivers a final speech to the Israelites, including a review of a justice system with the appointment of judges and law enforcers in every city. He specifies the importance of examining all crimes with careful inquiry, and avoiding bias or special treatment; moreover, at least two witnesses are required before someone is convicted of a crime and subsequently punished. It reads, “If a pair of witnesses misuse their power and are false witnesses, then you shall cause to happen what was planned for the sinner.” There is a sense of “an eye for an eye” here.

This passage also warns against idolatry and reviews the rules of war, including who is exempt from battle: newlyweds, new residents of a home, those who have just planted a vineyard, or those who are “afraid and soft-hearted.” Peace should always be offered before engaging in battle with an enemy, and women and children are to be spared in battle, but claimed for the victor. During war, no trees with edible fruit should be cut down due to the waste that would create. After battle, if an unidentified body is found, it is the closest city’s responsibility to honor this death and atone for it.

The passage is rich with a sense of morality in the search for justice. I was especially struck by the emphasis on objectivity in judging a person accused of wrongdoing. I think people instinctually make judgments about others in order to better understand and preserve themselves. Evolutionary responses tend to break down interpersonal conflicts into an “Us vs. Them,” black and white mentality. It’s often in our nature to automatically choose a side. Maintaining a neutral position, on the other hand, can feel unnatural. It takes a conscious effort, but is crucial, especially when in a position of power.

This is something I strive for in my work as a therapist for ethical and professional reasons but also to prevent becoming overly invested in another’s progress (or lack thereof.) In Buddhist terms, this nonreactivity or state of “dispassion” is known as “equanimity.” In her book Lovingkindess Sharon Salzberg explains, “Equanimity draws to it and strengthens other liberating mind states. Buoyancy, an agility and pliancy of mind, gives us the ability to relate to each situation as if it were new, with lightness and sensitive resilience, instead of rigidly applying old standards and responses to it…[it] also strengthens decisiveness, straightness, honesty, and sincerity of mind” (p. 149).  Thus, striving for neutrality can also create space for more clear and flexible thinking.

My kavanah, or intention, for this week is to explore an attitude of equanimity toward a person, situation, or conflict that has felt frustrating or overwhelming. Allow yourself to create some distance from the object of your worrying in order to seek a renewed sense of clarity. May our practice allow for a fresh perspective on a gray area. May this insight not just this week, but radiate out into the world through our thoughts, words, and actions, and may we be a blessing to the world.