“Do you solemnly swear or affirm that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
Though there wasn’t formal training for this in Rabbinical school, over my career I have appeared in court on behalf of others at least a few dozen times. Often it is to testify on a divorce matter, but I have also served as a character witness on drug issues, financial disputes and even a horrible false accusation.
Remarkably, more often than not, the occasions that I have been asked to come to court have fallen during this time of the year, in the month of Elul. As I think back on those court appearances, it strikes me that there are many comparisons we can draw to the great court dates we will all face just a short time from now on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and the lessons we can learn:
Fate – The tension, anxiety and uncertainty in a courtroom are palpable. All parties, including highly skilled legal counsel, know that they can advance the most persuasive arguments and provide the most compelling evidence, but ultimately the judge – and the judge alone – will rule in their case as he sees fit. Despite all of their efforts and pleadings, the fate of the litigants is solely in the hands of the judge who will determine their future. There is much we can learn from observing the temperament, behavior and disposition of those appearing before a human judge. As we stand before the Almighty, how can we truly feel and acknowledge that our fate is in His hands?
Decorum – The decorum in a courtroom is impeccable. Given the seriousness of appearing before a Magistrate, the parties all dress formally and show concern for the message their appearance sends. There is an absolute and total intolerance for talking, eating, ringing cell phones, noisy children, or anything else that will either distract from the proceedings or compromise the prestige of the courtroom. How is the decorum in God’s courtroom? Do we create an atmosphere that is equally intolerant of distractions and frivolous conversation? Do our dress and behavior reflect the seriousness and majesty of the forum in which we stand and the reason we are there?
Preparation – No lawyer or client walks into a courtroom without having prepared. The strategy is devised, the witnesses are prepped, and opening and closing arguments are scripted and rehearsed. Many hours are spent in preparation before appearing before the judge in an effort to achieve a favorable result. The gemara in Berachos tells us that the early pious Jews would spend an hour in meditation, preparing to pray. How much preparation do we do? Do we dedicate a few moments to clear our minds and focus our thoughts before making our presentation before the Judge of Judges?
Swearing In – I find it noteworthy that before a witness testifies, the court asks him or her to swear or affirm in God’s name that he or she will tell the truth. Implicitly, the statement acknowledges God’s existence and the consequences of dishonoring His name by lacking fidelity to the truth. The court assumes that the fear of God will prevent any witness from violating his oath to tell only the truth. Jewish law also mandates taking an oath in certain circumstances. The gemara explains that invoking God’s name will automatically elevate the seriousness with which the witness approaches his words. Our words matter, particularly in a courtroom, and using them accurately, appropriately and with integrity speaks to our very credibility as people. Do we always say what we mean and mean what we say? Are we honest, truthful and precise when reporting experiences to others? Does the fear of God lead us to be honest with God -– and ourselves?
Record – Every courtroom has either a stenographer sitting and typing each word that is uttered, or a recording device that captures everything that is said. Lawyers, witnesses and litigants must choose their words carefully, for once they are expressed they enter the record for posterity. The mishna in Avos encourages us to always remember Who is above us and therefore to recognize that an eye is always watching, an ear is always listening, v’chol ma’asecha b’sefer nichtavimv – and all of our deeds are recorded forever. Do we live with a cognizance and consciousness that what we say and do matters and that they enter the record of our lives, even when nobody is around to see it?
Contempt of Court – Part of the proceedings I recently observed included an accusation that one party had been in contempt of court for not following a court order. The judge turned to the accused party and said, “Do you understand that when I issue a ruling, if the other party can supply evidence that you knowingly and willingly disobeyed me, I will find you in contempt of my court and there will be great consequences? I can throw you in jail, and you will remain there until you obey my judgment.” Do we honor and obey the rulings of the Judge of Judges? Do we recognize that our choices have consequences and we are accountable for what we do? Are we in contempt of God’s court?
The comparisons could go on, but it is evident what I am trying to communicate at this solemn season of the Jewish year. Sitting in a courtroom in the month of Elul is, I have found, among the best sources of inspiration and motivation to prepare for the Days of Awe so that they are, indeed, awesome days of prayer, introspection, reflection and growth.
I hope and pray that none of us has to appear in a courtroom as a litigant. But should you find yourself there as a witness or juror or prospective juror, take advantage of the opportunity to observe and learn and find inspiration for your appearance in God’s courtroom in the hope that you will find favor in His eyes and secure a favorable outcome from the Supreme Judge.