Thursday, August 12, 2010

Thoughtful Justice

On Tuesday night, it was my turn to write the d'var Torah for my synagogue board meeting. Since I haven't written in a long time, I thought I'd share it:

In Judaism, our belief in God is not enough for us to be good Jews. A recitation of the sh'ma does not grant eternal salvation. Our actions underscore our faith. Our actions hold us accountable, bring us together, guide us, and even pull us apart. As the High Holidays draw near, we are reminded over and over again on the importance of action. Today, in fact, marks the beginning of our preparations—Rosh Chodesh Elul—the start of the month of Elul is when we take stock of our deeds, both good and bad, and decide how we are going to move forward in the coming year. Tradition tells us that during the month of Elul, Moses went back up Mt. Sinai to receive a new set of tablets after destroying them in anger over the Israelites building of the Golden Calf, which we find in (Ex. 32; 34:27-28). Some sources think Moses went back up the Mountain on Rosh Chodesh Elul and came back down to the Israelites on the 10th of Tishri, at the end of Yom Kippur, when repentance was complete. Others feel that during Elul, Moses prayed to God in behalf of the Israelites, so that God would forgive the people for their actions.

The Torah portion for this week, however, is not Exodus 32 or 34. The portion says nothing about Moses, or the Israelites, or the Golden Calf. Yet, this week's Torah portion connects to the concepts of repentance and action presented in Exodus. Famous for the lines, Justice, Justice shall you pursue. (Duet 16:20), Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) not only asks the people to pursue Justice, it provides a structure of Justice: the appointing of magistrates and officials for the tribes, providing rules against cult worship, organization of courts, laws of the king, rules for the Levites, rules for prophets, rules for unintentional homicide, rules of settlement, rules of blood avenging, rules for waging holy war, and atonement for an unsolved murder.

Why does God need to lay out the rules of Justice? If we look back at the Golden Calf incident- we see a group of Israelites feeling fearful and alone in the wilderness. Remember, the first time Moses went up the mountain; the Israelites had no idea where he went or when he was coming back. "Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him." (Ex 32:1)The Israelites made the god out of fear. They felt alone in the wilderness, possibly abandoned by their leader at the bequest of a faceless bodiless God. They wanted something to hold onto. The Oxford Jewish Study Bible, says, "Although most commentators believe that they mean "god" literally, it is more likely that they mean it as…something that would serve as a new means of securing God's presence." (JSB, 183) They even say, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt." (Ex 32:4) God tells Moses the people are making a calf. He runs back down the mountain, to find the Israelites worshipping the Golden calf. "As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain." (Ex 32:19). God wants to punish the Israelites by destroying them, but Moses pleas with God, and after many pleas, Moses goes back up the Mountain receive new tablets. "Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered." (Ex 34:1) What do these tablets give the Israelites? They give them rules to live by, so they aren't standing in the dark, so they aren't living by fear and ignorance. Moses repented for the people, so that they could gain knowledge of how to act.

Shoftim continues that concept—giving the abstract idea of Justice a concrete definition. It not only tells the people that they need magistrates, or kings, or even war—it lays out how those magistrates, kings and even witnesses should act. For instance, it tells us that the punishment for praying to another god is death. However, while the punishment of death for praying to another god seems harsh, the rules speak to more than the punishment. We don't simply kill someone because one person says they prayed to another god: "A person shall be put to death only on the testimony of two or more witnesses; he must not be put to death on the testimony of a single witness." The same goes for any crime. "A single witness may not validate against a person any guilt or blame for any offense that may be committed; a case can be valid only on the testimony of two witnesses or more." (17:15). Again, Justice isn't simply about the wrath of a vengeful God or vengeful people, Justice is about being thoughtful. Justice also does not lie in the hands of any one person. Judges and magistrates are also not above the law. "You shall not judge unfairly, you shall show no partiality, you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes if the discerning and upset the pleas of the just." (16:19) Even when it comes to the power of a King, the king's power is not absolute. He cannot have too many horses, or wives, or gold and above all—he must follow God's teachings. "When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows, or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left…" (17:18) Thus, the king is never above the law.

Above all, Shoftim recognizes the danger of absolute power. It deals with corruption head on, so that Justice is thoughtful and action is meaningful, and the people are not constantly living in fear. Thus, when we prepare for our own repentance, our repentance is for actions or words we know are unjust. We aren't apologizing out of fear. Our repentance, like our justice, should come from a place of thoughtfulness.

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