As we approach the end of 5781, I find myself both hopeful and concerned about the challenges that lay ahead for “We The People of the United States,” for “People Israel” and all of us who inhabit Planet Earth. Over this past year, the plagues of covid-19, hatred and bigotry, and climate change have created a perfect storm that challenges our physical, societal, and spiritual survival. Facing these threats simultaneously has led me to re-examine the meaning of the opening verses of this week’s parsha.
“You shall appoint magistrates and public officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that Adonai your God is giving to you, and they shall govern the people with due justice (mishpat tzedek). You shall not judge unfairly, you shall show no partiality, you shall not take bribes — for bribes blind the eye of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice you shall pursue — tzedek, tzedek tirdof — that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you.”
As each of this month undertakes the process we call cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of the soul, in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, there are questions we have both the right and responsibility to ask not only of ourselves but of each other.
One question which these opening words of our parsha directs me to ask this year is: How well are the new national leaders in both America and Israel living up to the challenging standards set out here in the opening verses of our parsha?
The Talmud, (Sanhedrin 32b) suggests that the repetition of the word justice, tzedek in verse 20 implies that we must be just both in making a judgment and in reaching a compromise.
Both the Biden administration and the new Israeli government led by Naftalie Bennet and Yair Lapid face the difficult challenge of pursuing justice for all the inhabitants of their respective countries while finding themselves having to work together with legislatures in which they have razor-thin support? Can they overcome both the anger and apathy in their societies, which threatens the democracies they lead, while simultaneously defending their nations against the real threats, both foreign and domestic, that both Israel and America face in this third decade of the 21st century?
I found a hopeful answer to my question in a medieval commentary on these opening verses of Shoftim by Bachya ben Asher, a Sephardic Jew. Bachya wrote that the double use of tzedek teaches us “that we must pursue justice under all circumstances: Whether it leads to your benefit or to your detriment; both in the words we speak as well as in our actions, whether the matter involves another Jew or a non-Jew. Moreover, the double use of tzedek in this verse teaches us that we cannot use unjust means to secure justice.”
Bachya lived in what historians today refer to as “The Golden Age of Spanish Jewry.” It was a community that was at peace with its Muslim and Christian co-inhabitants. It was internally self-governing and economically thriving. I hear in Bachya’s commentary upon this week’s parsha critical lessons for We the Jewish People and We the People of the United States in the 21st century. Both societies face the challenge of minority populations who, while equal under the law, face societal discrimination and economic inequality. I believe that both the Biden and Bennett administrations are committed to equal justice and equal opportunity for their citizens. I pray that both governments will succeed in this goal.
A second question that I hear in these opening words of Shoftim that are amplified by Bachya’s interpretation of tzedek, tzedek tirdof is that the imperative to pursue justice, justly, is applicable not only to nations and their leaders, but is directed to each of us, personally.
As we emerge from the death and devastation of the plague of covid-19, I believe that the challenge of the year ahead is whether the fault lines in trust between governed and governors can be repaired. I worry today that the ideal shared by both American and Jewish tradition that we can and we must honor free expression of opinion while distinguishing fact from fiction is under siege. Be it health issues such as the rejection of the lifesaving vaccines that protect all of us from covid-19 or environmental challenges such as climate change which has been manifest here in America this past year by record levels of rain in the American Northeast and equally devastating draught in the West, is there not a serious injustice we are actively or passively participating in when we allow our political preferences, to trump science? Is not the God to whom we will appeal for another year of life on Rosh Hashanah both the Creative Force of our Universe and The Commanding Voice from Sinai that pleads with us “Love your neighbor as yourself”?!
This summer we have all felt the impact of climate change as draught and oppressive heat impact the western regions of America, while lakes and rivers overflow in the northeast and condominiums crumble in South Florida. The double use of tzedek in our parsha this week reminds me that similar to America’s communal response to the pandemic of covid-19, the effects of climate change now demand that our federal state and local leaders must develop better systemic ways to deal with these medical and environmental challenges. Our national approach must continue to be based upon both justice and compassion. Reading Shoftim this week while preparing for Rosh Hashanah, which is also called Yom Harat Olam, the birthday of the world, reminds me that we must provide help to those directly affected by the impacts of climate change and to lead our fellow Americans to come to grips with the reality of climate change and the unmistakable challenge it poses to the future of this planet.
This past Monday was the first of Elul. As you and I count down the days in anticipation of a new year, I suggest that we all inscribe upon our hearts the words tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Let us not only use it as a measure by which we judge our political leaders but also take a vow that we will not be so quick to judge others, both loved ones and those with whom we disagreewe , and that we will simultaneously judge all our actions by the measuring stick of Torah. Rather than continuing to play the blame game” in the year ahead, may all block out the noise of our world on these upcoming High Holy Days to hear the Divine call to change taught to us in a small but salient little book called Avot de Rabbi Natan: “When a person does something wrong to you let it be little in your eyes; when you wrong another let it be great in your eyes.”