“Just” Your Behavior

by Rabbi Thomas Louchheim

48th Torah Portion, 5th in Deuteronomy

Shoftim 16:18 (97 verses)

Saturday, August 10, 2013 (4 Elul 5773)


Moses details the two most important characteristics of a judge: Remain objective and have the strength to refuse bribes. A judge is also supposed to write his own sefer Torah and carry it with him at all times. Moses emphasizes that only God’s justice can be trusted. He instructs the people about the difference between true and false prophets. Finally, he reviews the laws covering manslaughter, murder, how to conduct a war properly, and the ritual of the red heifer.


This week begins the days of preparation for the High Holy Days. It is Elul, the month to review the cheshbon hanefesh, “account of your soul.” This is the time to take a look at the forces and contours of your own inner landscape. You might want to look at your personality and how it affects the pursuit of personal goals and relations with others. You might want to look at how your emotions affect your daily life, like your anger. Do you have too much or too little? Have you been generous enough with your time, talents and money? Is it arrogance which is puffing up your ego like a peacock, or do you have the opposite tendency, allowing yourself to be taken advantage of too readily?

Let’s see how our Torah portion provides insight on how to achieve greater self-understanding.

“Justice, justice you shall pursue” (16:20). Our Torah portion this week admonishes us to pursue justice, to be wary of injustices in the world. The very repetition of the word “justice” unlocks opportunities for us to expand the application of justice in our time and in our lives. When Moses exclaimed “Justice, Justice…,” and when we hear these words we must feel we are being addressed individually. Each time Moses cried “Justice,” the word is directed at the heart of each of us, enjoining us to act as a moral being. It tugs at our consciousness and our kishkes, our “guts,” to look seriously at the causes that cry out for us to take a stand for what is right and just, certainly; but also it is a call to look at our own behavior.

The ends do not justify the means. Just because your cause is just does not mean that your behavior, the way you “pursue” it, is just. This is an opportunity to watch over your ways and overcome bad habits and bad traits. From Proverbs we learn, “Consider the path of your feet and all of your paths will be established” (4:26), and “Let us seek out our ways and examine them, and we will return, return to God” (Lamentations 3:40).

Rabbi Mendel of Satanov has outlined 13 Middot (character traits) in his book Cheshbon ha-Nefesh (1812). We are to walk a path with positive actions in all of these areas: Equanimity, Patience, Order, Decisiveness, Cleanliness, Humility, Righteousness, Frugality, Diligence, Silence, Calmness, Truth, and Separation. A good explanation of each can be found at www.rivertonmussar.org/route-of-mussar/middot-chart.

God, through Moses, enjoins us to powerful action. You are told to “pursue” justice. You live in an imperfect world, in which your own lives are imperfect. As you pursue justice in your community and in your world do not ignore the dynamic possibility of allowing for the emergence of justice in your personal lives and behaviors. And so, as the month of Elul, the month of spiritual preparation before our holiest days of the year dawns on you, our tradition calls upon you—for thirty days—to dig deep, to look inside, and to tap the root source of your very souls.


1. How do you define acting “justly” at home? Does your partner agree that you are acting justly? Your children?

2. How do we determine that we are acting justly?

3. How many of the Middot do you feel are important? Are they a positive part of your life?

4. Of what consequence is it that some of these character traits are negative?

5. Are these negative traits a consequence for others as well?


Become sensitive to the 13 Middot by becoming aware of your behavior patterns and potentially damaging behavior. Rework your problematic soul traits toward the positive. One way of observing your behavior is by charting. List the traits on a chart with the days of the week running across the top. 0 = neutral, + = positive action, – = negative action.