Nitzavim–Vayelech: Are they to be trusted? Rashi-mon in the Torah

Nitzavim–Vayelech: Are they to be trusted? Rashi-mon in the Torah

Congregation Beth Shalom, Pompton Lakes, Conservative

The event occurred weeks ago. Most Americans haven’t even heard of it. It happened when we were absorbed in political conventions, high profile indictments, and police shootings. But the facts of the case are shocking and have led to thousands protesting in every city in Israel. At this point, 11 people have been arrested and indicted on the case of gang-rape of a 16 year old girl at a hotel in Eilat. It was originally reported that 30 men participated in the hour-long rape, but few names of the perpetrators have been released because — except for two adult men in their late twenties who have criminal records — almost all of the perpetrators were minors.

The victim and her girl friend had been drinking alcohol at the swimming pool and went upstairs to a private room to cool down. One of the adult males, who previously had propositioned the girl (and had been rebuffed) pretended to be a doctor and offered to help her, moving her to an unoccupied room and beginning the rape. 

Other people came along, many of them 17 year olds from the pool; they sent text messages to each other to come and take advantage of the naked girl. Some of them filmed her being violated on their cellphones. (She had been so drunk that she did not recall any of this happening until she was shown footage of it the next day when some guys asked her to repeat what had happened the day before). 

The whole affair has been deeply disturbing to the Israeli populace.

One issue that has far-reaching implications is the question of whom should people trust regarding the events? 

There is certainly physical evidence (security cameras, cellphone videos). Plenty of people were questioned, including the hotel manager, security officers, the perpetrators and the victim herself. But when the aggregate does not add up to a coherent story, as in the movie Rashomon, what remains is a paucity of believability; to learn “the truth” of events, many points of view must be allowed and all narrative paths must be followed. Then, perhaps, a singular truth will bubble up to the surface.

In our double Torah portion this Shabbat (Nitzavim and Vayelech, Deut. 29:-31:30), the reading concludes with the statement: “Moses spoke the words of this poem / song in the ears (hearing) of the congregation of Israelites ad tumam.” This last phrase is most often often translated “until they concluded,” or “until the end.” But we must not discount the possibility that the recitation took place until the words became “simple” (like the “tam” son in the Passover seder), that is, until they made sense and were comprehensible. 

To understand how shocking such a demand must have been in context, we need only reference the beginning of the reading: “You stand here today, all of you, before the Lord your God: your heads of your tribes, your elders and your (police) officers, every person of (the people) Israel. Your children and women, your non-citizens living within the camp, from the woodchoppers to the water drawers.” (Deut 29: 9-10) All of these people were witness to — and included in — the covenant God made and renewed with the nation that day. 

As Rashi points out, the people mentioned are listed in decreasing level of societal importance or gravitas: Leaders (heads) are much more important than officers, who are higher than women and foreigners. Unlike the bias many people have today, police officers are not at the top of the list in importance (or perhaps even trustworthiness). And this makes sense, for we have read previously that included within the populace were judges, police, officers of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Spread around the camp, this would indicate that while half of the population in the desert were involved in artisanship, shepherding and the like, out of every ten people there were maybe four or five who were employed in the tiered tribal and national bureaucracy. Were we to assume that among the officers were some who didn’t measure up to highest ideals? Certainly! That’s why each of them is nested in a multi-layer pyramidal schema of checks and responsibilities. Nobody could ever be assumed to be wholly righteous and wholly unbiased, but neither were they totally on their own. As we learn, “Kol Israel areivim zen lazeh –  All Jews are bound up (in a net of) responsibility, one for the other.”

The Torah emphasizes that all needed to be there to participate in the brit (covenant or social contract) with God. Does this ranked list exist because we should implicitly trust our (political) leaders more than we trust the accounts of police or immigrants or manual laborers? That is certainly a possible explanation. But perhaps just as likely, all of the were included in the “national covenant” for two reasons: No single person or group in society had a monopoly on truth and trustworthiness, nor were they alone in answering for misdeeds because they all were responsible to each other. 

These principles should inform all our societal interactions, not just our Jewish ones. The mention of police officers brings to mind the quite blatant violations committed by those who violated Brionna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Jacob Blake (just to name a few recent attacks), but with the caveat that police officers are not always to be either blamed or trusted. People in all levels of society were meant to be included in the covenant, even foreigners, and we are all responsible for what goes on in our community. It must never be assumed that all are innocent OR guilty, but rather that we all have responsibility in these events that happen. Because God is one, justice and truth are assumed to be unitary, as well, and the truth must be searched for and ferreted out along whichever path evidence leads. 

At one and the same time, nobody should be told to “stay out of” the search for justice, because it concerns us all.   

Here in the United States, politicians may say “the American people trusts the police” or “the American people will not stand for injustice to be perpetrated.” But it is only when politicians acknowledge that the will of the American people doesn’t speak with a single point of view, but includes a cacophony of voices, incoherent but with a vested interest in the events and systems we share, that they will indeed be speaking a holy truth. As time rolls on from these horrific events, the reports and stories may converge into an acceptably coherent narrative, or they may not. But seeing the historical deformation such warped events inflict on society, we must all realize and acknowledge, that however uncomfortable facing brutality may make us, we need to do it to heal society. As we approach the High Holidays, we see that among whatever other teshuvah we might need to do personally, society needs to pursue justice in horrible cases of victimization that occur on our watch. We are all the American people, or the Israeli citizenry. Injustices and brutality must be addressed, solved, and rooted out from the core, because that is the process by which the world is made new and possibilities can unfold.

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