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Never Stop Fighting

08/18/2023 10:05:06 AM


Some of us have justice on our minds these days. Headlines have informed us of indictments, grand juries, witness intimidation, and judge appointments all summer, and the culture wars vying for a monopoly on truth continue to divide us—rarely in a way that encourages discourse or the pursuit of fairness. And, in the end, is a system of justice ever completely fair? Will our society ever cease to treat people differently based on the accidents of birth? In a country whose prison system is overflowing, where one can be born into a presumption of innocence or guilt based on ethnicity and social standing, where is the justice?

This week’s Torah portion, Shof’tim, famously starts with the instruction to “appoint magistrates” and “show no partiality,” leading up to the famous and poetic formula: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.” Chances are that you have heard this command more than once, and you may have even ventured a little further into the portion. Gulp. The first example of justice involves stoning to death any man or woman who may have turned to the worship of other gods, the sun, the moon, or any of the heavenly hosts, and the hands of the witnesses are to be the first to hurl a stone. Not exactly my idea of justice!

But in that very realization lies the crux of the question. Who can say with objective certainty that something is just? Is selling illegal substances more worthy of a prison sentence than white collar crimes? Is it fair that a crime committed in one state can lead to the death penalty, but committing that same act a few miles down the road would lead to a lifetime in prison, with the possibility of parole? Few of us would agree completely on questions of right and wrong, let alone of legality, sentencing, and rehabilitation, so how are we to pursue justice, if one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor?

Interestingly, Shof’tim acknowledges these differences of opinion, making allowances for the steps to follow if a case is too nuanced or complicated. “If a case is too baffling to decide,” it states, “you shall […] appear before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time.” The judgment in this higher court is final and sanctioned by the Eternal. “You must not deviate from the verdict,” on threat of death.

Laying aside the obvious differences between the time this text was written and our own, some elements of the parsha are as relevant today as they might have been millennia ago. Acknowledging from the outset that systems of justice are imperfect, Shof’tim nonetheless calls on each and every one of us to work tirelessly to make our world more equitable, unbiased, and ethical. When we cannot agree on a specific case, we cannot simply walk away from it. In the call to pursue justice, the Hebrew uses the singular “you” form. In a sense, it’s as though the text is looking at you, at your kitchen table, with the coffee cup in your hand. And you there, on the treadmill. And you, at your desk. Each and every one of us is given this charge and a roadmap.

Don’t look away when a situation is unjust. Never stop fighting for a better world. While Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. assured us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with King from Selma to Birmingham in 1965, charged us to “pray with [our] feet.” That arc is not going to bend itself, and it is up to each and every one of us to keep it moving, to keep asking the tough questions when we personally feel something is immoral or unfair. In every interaction, from the minor to the weighty, justice, justice you shall pursue.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rebecca Abbate

Mon, June 17 2024 11 Sivan 5784