Sermon, Shabbat Shoftim 5780
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
I have a question for you: what is the most unjust thing that ever happened to you? What unjust thing in your life truly upset your belief that the world is fair, or that our systems of justice, in any area of life, actually work the way that they are supposed to?
I suspect that if you really think back over your life you will find incidents and events, even entire processes, that were unfair to you. You no doubt can think of people who wronged you in your personal life, institutions or people you counted on that were unfair to you, situations that got out of hand and in which you were the loser for no very good reason. These kinds of things happen to everyone.
Did those situations, those unjust occurrences, affect you? Did they damage your belief in the justice of the world? Did they even make you feel hopeless, perhaps, or as though things were never going to work out? If so, I must tell you, it’s exactly that sort of sensibility that our portion of Shoftim is trying to address. Because as much as we admire justice, Shoftim is trying to prevent injustice, seeking to create a society and a world in which right will actually prevail in matters of human living and civilization.
This is a particularly interesting and important time to be reading the Torah portion of Shoftim, which deals so extensively with justice, as well as with magistrates and police and judges and everyone involved with the administration of justice. The question of how our own police today do what they do, and the proper use of the force we allocate to authorities has obviously occupied our nation all summer, and it continues to do so in many ways. While much of our attention is riveted on questions associated with COVID-19, and some of it is occupied with our virtual national political conventions, a lot of what we have been focused on, and arguing about, revolves around justice and its appropriate administration.
So long as a society doubts the justice of its institutions, and in particular the institutions entrusted with administering justice itself, you are very likely to see protests and disturbances of the peace. As the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “There can be no justice without peace. And there can be no peace without justice.”
So what does Judaism have to say about justice, in the abstract, in the practical sense, and in the personal?
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.
That leads to the elaborate calculations and arguments of the Talmud, as it explores just how we are to create a society based on justice. Every legal statement listed in the Torah—and there are many of them—is carefully considered in the great works of Jewish law. The discussions of how to apply each law in order to further true justice in the world pit great minds against one another over the centuries, seeking to sharpen and hone the laws until they accord with God’s repeated injunctions to seek justice in such a way that the very real world in which we live can more closely approximate the ideal that God wishes us to pursue. In other words, the Talmud constantly pushes us to think through every practical aspect of each rule until we have drawn from them the highest level of justice they can yield. It’s exhaustive and exhausting, but it sharpens your wits and creates a healthy respect for the way that law seeks to structure and administer justice in Halakha, Jewish law.
Maybe it is this long Talmudic dedication to seeking to make law reflect justice that explains why Jews of every denomination have always been 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 attempted 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.
When our own society strays from justice, it is no surprise when many of those who protest the injustice are always Jewish. Because for us justice is not just an idea. It must be made the basis for any society that wishes to believe itself based in good.
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. If you believe an aspect of our society is unjust, it is the imperative command of Shoftim that you, yourself, seek to rectify that by your own actions. Pursue justice, we are taught. Chase it. Make it real.
Finding a way to increase justice in this world is our greatest task. And finding ways to demonstrate that responsibility in this complex time is an integral part of that process.
But we must do so. Because our ability to believe in our own society, and in the fairness of the world, is dependent on creating, furthering, chasing justice.
May this be a Shabbat of ever-increasing justice for each of us. And may we find our own ways of seeking to improve the justice of this often unjust human world around us.