Judgment Day

What one rabbi learned about the High Holidays by spending time in criminal court.

by Rabbi Deborah Wechsler

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People prepare for the High Holidays in many different ways. Some check their closets to make sure they have something to wear. Some put in their brisket orders with the butcher. Some read books to inspire reflection.

I spent the afternoon in criminal court.

scales-of-justiceWhy? In a discussion about the holidays with a rabbinic colleague, we found ourselves lingering on the image of the synagogue as a courtroom. The predominant metaphor of the High Holidays is of God as judge, sitting in the heavenly court and taking the measure of each of us according to our actions. If the metaphor takes hold as it should, then over the course of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the synagogue is essentially transformed into a court of law. As we talked, my colleague said, “How can we possibly understand this concept if we don’t actually go to court!”

So off we went to spend the afternoon at the criminal court in Towson, Maryland, thanks to a gracious friend who works in the State’s Attorney’s office. In the course of the afternoon we spoke to a young state trooper who gave us some insights into how people feel when they are called to court. We even had a few valuable moments with the judge, who shared her thoughts on the nature of strict justice versus merciful justice and how we might all be judges of a sort.

Here are 10 things that my day in court taught me about the High Holidays:

1 We come before God alone. The first sign you encounter when you reach the court building is one that says to leave your cell phone outside. It is not even allowed into the building. This is a powerful statement that what is about to happen concerns us and us alone. There is no one for us to call, no more important conversation to be having.

2 We tell our own stories. Each of us has a story about who we are and how we have lived. In a courtroom, the proceedings begin with the story of who you are and what you did. If you choose, you may tell that story to the judge yourself. As we come to the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, one of the questions we need to ask is how the stories of our lives will reflect upon us, and if the answer is poorly, then we have an opportunity to change our narrative.

3 The consequences for bad behavior are clear. It was sobering to hear the charges read against each defendant and then to hear the penalty associated with that crime. There was no room to claim, “But I didn’t know.” When the consequences are stated from the outset, we are held responsible for our behavior in an unbiased and fair manner.

4 This is not an easy place to be. The courtroom is not designed to make you feel comfortable. The seats are hard, the protocol unfamiliar, and so much is at stake. When we come to the synagogue during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we also know there is a great deal at stake, and this is not easy. Even in the moments when we can sit back and let the music or the words wash over us, much of what happens is designed to challenge us, to discomfit us, to make us examine the larger strokes of our lives.

5 We would like God to be a strong, fair and easygoing judge. When we asked the trooper what people hope for in a judge, that was his response. The same is true for our heavenly judge. We want there to be standards, we want to be held accountable. But we pray that God is fair and gentle, or as we say repeatedly, “slow to anger and quick to forgive.”

6 Our fate is in our own hands. When we asked the judge about the relationship between strict justice and merciful justice, she replied that it was not up to her, it was up to the defendant. She metes out judgment based on a person’s behavior, his or her degree of remorse and what the law requires.

7 We each come to the synagogue with different feelings, different motivations. In the courtroom we saw lawyers, defendants, witnesses, victims, police officers, family members, and court officers. In the synagogue, especially on the High Holidays, we look around and see people who have come for very different reasons. Over the course of the holidays, each of them will have their moment with God. But all will be judged, all will be heard.

8 It is unsettling to face judgment. From the moment that I walked down the hallway outside the courtroom, I had a funny feeling in my stomach. I even wondered if the people were looking at me and wondering what brought me there. We may have been to shul for these High Holidays for 10, 20, 80, or 90 years – but still we come with trepidation as we approach judgment.

9 We are not strangers to God. In the courtroom, all of the people present know the record of the defendant. The lawyers, the police officers, the record keepers all are privy to the history of the person on trial. Unlike the High Holiday experience, at court the judge is the only person who doesn’t know the defendant. As she told us, “They are all strangers to me.” Not so with God. God knows all of our actions and all of our motivations. Judaism believes that we are judged according to our behavior, yet God still knows what is in our hearts.

10 We have to show up. The most difficult thing to witness in court was a man being handcuffed because he had failed to show up for his scheduled court appearance. He appeared after the time for his trial had passed saying that he had had to arrange childcare for his daughter. But no matter the excuse or even his eventual arrival, he was held responsible for not showing up. It seemed tragic, but it made us think that whether we feel guilty or not, whether we feel that what we read in the Mahzor applies to us or not, at this time of year many Jews feel a need to at least show up. As difficult as it is, we come to be judged, and to take part in the awe-inspiring courtroom experience of the Jewish people for one more year.

Debi Wechsler is a rabbi at Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore, Maryland. She blogs at www.chizukamuno.org.