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Making the Ideal Real

Sermon, Shabbat Shoftim 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

One of my favorite passages in the whole Torah comes from Genesis, in the episode of Sodom and Gomorrah. God informs Abraham that God is about to destroy these two bastions of evil, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Las Vegas and Atlantic City of the ancient world, places where sin was cultivated and virtue punished. Abraham objects and asks if God will destroy the cities if 50 righteous people can be found. “Far be it from You to kill the righteous with the wicked,” Abraham says, “Chas v’challilah, chalilah l’cha.” So, God agrees not to destroy the cities if 50 righteous live there. Then Abraham negotiates. What if there are only 45 righteous people, will God destroy the cities for the lack of a mere 5 righteous people? Again, God agrees, and in a wonderful, spirited narrative God is bargained down to 10 righteous people being enough to save the city from destruction. It is ultimately one of the bases for why we require 10 adults to form a minyan, a minimum number for a full prayer service and Torah reading and Kaddish. 10 righteous people are enough to save a city.

But what I love best about this famous section is the line where Abraham summons up the courage—you might say the Chutzpah—to proclaim to God, “HaShofeit kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat? Will the Judge of the whole world not act justly?” It is a powerful argument, and it works, and God gives in. Of course, you don’t find a minyan of righteous people in Sodom, and eventually the cities are destroyed. But still, that phrase is spectacular: shall the judge of the whole earth not act with justice? It proves beyond question that justice lies at the very heart, as the very essence of the Jewish understanding of God.

And yet, justice must be applied. High principles only matter when they are actually employed in the real world. And sometimes that’s quite a complicated process.

All Jews, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal or something else, come originally from a religious culture shaped by a complex process of applying divine law to a very human, fallible, earthbound population. Our heritage is based on the kind of thinking that takes great, idealistic proclamations designed to further morality and applies them to mundane daily life with sometimes fascinating results.

A core ideal of Judaism is to work to create a society based on justice, which will lead, ultimately, to peace and goodness. But it is justice that is always the focus, which is embodied in the Torah portion we read this Shabbat, Shoftim, “Judges,” filled with the concept of justice.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof, we are commanded here: pursue true justice! It is a powerful and remarkable ideal. Our societies must strive for absolute fairness, must be just in every way. But justice is more than high ideals. It is applying sacred principles to the mundane reality of daily life, including rules of ritual observance. Judaism makes no distinction between ethical and ritual laws. All are part of creating a society based on justice.

The practical result of trying to apply high principles to basic, common practices is a very intriguing way of thinking about things. When you are Orthodox and believe yourself bound to follow Jewish law, Halakhah, the way of living that requires adherence to all the many rules about diet, clothing, prayers and ritual observances and study, you sometimes find yourself doing things that don’t make much sense. But you do them anyway, because they are part and parcel of the elaborate system of Jewish law you believe will bring about holiness in this world.

For example, Shabbat, the Sabbath, was originated to teach us the need for making a sacred difference in time in our own lives. The Torah forbids m’lachah on Saturday, “work” broadly understood. Orthodox Jewish law therefore forbids work on the day of rest by prohibiting a variety of actions on Shabbat: lighting a fire, carrying a heavy object more than a few feet, writing, tearing, elaborate cooking or cleaning, building, swimming and so on.

These laws, quite complex in their interactions with actual daily life, mean that observant Orthodox Jews do not drive on the Sabbath or turn on electric lights or watch TV or perform a variety of other normal daily actions. However, lest the rules become too restrictive and make life impossible to enjoy Shabbat, the happiest of days, there are all kinds of ways of making it possible to do what is necessary in order to make the Sabbath pleasurable. For example, if you are not supposed to carry anything on Shabbat, how do you bring your tallit, your tallis or prayershawl with you to Temple on Saturday morning? The answer is you wear it over your shoulders, and then it’s no longer an item you are carrying but a garment you are wearing! Problem solved, even if to the non-Orthodox this may seem slightly absurd.

Which leads to one of my favorite Jewish jokes. It goes like this:

Question: Is a person permitted to ride in an airplane on the Sabbath?

Answer: Yes, as long as your seat belt remains fastened. In this case, it is considered that you are not riding in the jet, but instead you are wearing the airplane.

Please understand that these complex rules are primarily observed by Orthodox and very traditional Conservative Jews. But the thinking that went into creating a system that normal human beings could live with, the pragmatic idealism of Jewish law, influences the ways all Jews think. While we Reform Jew don’t follow all the strictures of the Sabbath our Orthodox family and friends might, some of us make it a point not to go to the mall or randomly go shopping on Shabbat. It is a matter of personal choice how we make Shabbat special and therefore holy.

In fact, every non-Orthodox Jew chooses which practices to maintain and how to do them. And the reasoning, like my own choices about Shabbat observance—I go to temple, but will go out afterwards to a restaurant for dinner sometimes; I study Torah but might watch TV in the afternoon; I will go on a Shabbat morning hike and have a service and Torah reading during the hike; I personally choose to keep a kosher home, although I do not keep Halakhically kosher when I eat out, and so on—are also influenced by a kind of Talmudic thinking that adapts ideals to pragmatic situations.

Maybe that’s why Jews of every denomination are so good at law—three Jews are currently on the 9-member United States Supreme Court—which is all about applying rules to complex situations to make things work out. It’s a kind of intellectual flexibility that seeks to keep in mind and heart the highest principles, while making it possible for all of us to function in society without losing our integrity.

But I want to come back to the notion that in Shoftim we are charged not only with being just but pursuing justice. The Hebrew word used for pursuit, rodef, is the same word used for an atempted murderer pursuing his prey. It is the strongest possible use: don’t just act for justice, chase it down! That means, in pragmatic Jewish terms, that we must find a way not only make personal choices about how we live ritually or even in ethical terms, but we also must work to make our organizations, like our synagogue, and especially our society more just. It is this great injunction that underlies the Jewish commitment to religious action and social justice, the need we Jews have to try to make our synagogue, but also our city, our state, our country and our world into something that more closely mirrors our own conception of justice.

Justice is very likely the highest Jewish ideal. Is justice more important than peace? Ultimately, yes, because without justice peace cannot truly be maintained. Is justice more important than charity? Yes, because the very idea of tzedakah, charity, is based in the same word, tzedek, justice. Charity is derived from the need for justice. Is justice more important than happiness? Yes, because real happiness depends upon the trust that things are fair and just for each of us. Is justice more important than love? Ultimately, again, yes, because for love to truly exist we must be in a relationship that is based in respect and fairness, which are the essence of any deep love.

All Jews, in one way or another, are engaged in a variation of this process of seeking and pursuing justice whenever we seek to live ethically. But we are also actively engaged in that process when we decide which rituals we choose to celebrate and observe, because it is these experiences that ultimately engage our own Jewish faculties for exploring how to bring justice to the world. What Shoftim insists is that we seek to apply these high ideals to our own lives in a practical way, that in both rituals and morals we seek justice in our own lives, our communities, our society and in the greater world.

Remember that it is always how we apply principles of justice that matters most. Because ideals alone don’t really matter in Judaism; you must put them into practice.

So, whether or not we think an airplane is really a garment, finding a way to increase justice in the world is our greatest task. And finding rituals that remind us of this responsibility is an integral part of that process.

May this be a Shabbat of ever-increasing justice for each of us.

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