Parshat Shoftim: “Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue”
This Torah portion of the week, Shoftim or “Judges,” is a portion that is very dear to my heart. Indeed, it was the portion that I chanted at my Bat Mitzvah exactly ten years ago. It is a portion that relates the laws of justice: setting up a judicial system, offering peace before battle, establishing places of refuge from those who seek revenge. Shoftim is a portion– created in a world of idolatry, a world lacking judicial procedure, void of a declaration of human rights– that is frequently credited with bringing justice, legality, social guidelines, the idea of human dignity, and the worth of individual life to the world.You shall appoint judges and establish fair courts, you shall not bear false witness, nor accept bribes. You shall establish cities of refuge, offer peace to a warring nation, and accept responsibility for maintaing justice even when crimes are committed outside of your community. These are all rules explicated in Shoftim.
This parshah can be read in relation to the current situation in the Middle East, calling to mind the numerous attempts at peace that Israel has made with its Arab neighbors: “When you draw near to a city to wage war against it, you shall call out to it for peace” (Deuteronomy 20.10). Indeed, Israel’s Arab citizens are afforded full rights, privileges, and freedoms; whereas Arab states do not afford those same democratic rights to their own citizens, much less their Jewish citizens who are afforded [in some cases, worse than] second class status.
Judaism is credited with establishing the first declaration of human rights and promoting the idea of the individual worth of each and every person to the world. [Please see my previous post: Walk Our World, Write Our World for more information on how this influenced the ancient world.] The outlook of the world has been entirely altered, based upon many of the laws implemented in the Torah. We must think how the world would have been a different place, had it not been for the revelations of the Torah. We must keep in mind that in ancient societies, many of the Torah ideals were considered radical. While the cult of Molech were practicing infanticide, Jews were teaching “thou shalt not commit murder.” When the ancient Romans were conquering cities and decimating populations, Jews were offering peace as opposed to war. When the ancient Egyptians were made to fear the Pharaoh, the Jews said that if a court of law comes to a unanimous conviction that the accused party is to be acquitted, lest bribery be involved.
Shoftim advocates justice, court systems, and the rule of law. We are reminded: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Always, in all dealings and rulings, justice is meant to prevail. We must guard our cities with courts of law, and we must choose the just route above all else, lest we make a disgrace of G-d’s name.
In Rabbi Marc D. Angel’s essay, Israel: A Tiny Nation, A Great Destiny, Israel is viewed as the hope for our world, even throughout its fleeing of persecution and the expulsion from its land over the centuries:
A tiny nation, often misunderstood and maligned, changed the course of history for the good. This tiny nation produced the Bible and its prophets; sages and mystics; poets and dreamers. This tiny nation, generation after generation, in many ways has been the conscience of humanity, the litmus test of human civilization.
This tiny nation lived in a tiny land in antiquity. Its King David established Jerusalem as its capitol city a thousand years before the dawn of Christianity and more than 1600 years before Mohammed. It was seldom allowed to live in peace: other nations threatened, attacked, made war. It saw its capitol city razed by vicious enemies, its Temples destroyed by Babylonians and Romans, its citizens ravaged and exiled.
Israel is a bastion of hope in a world filled with despair. It is a wellspring of human dignity in a world filled with shameless hatred and strife.
To stand with Israel is to stand for the redemption of the people of Israel and humanity.
[Please read the full essay here: http://www.jewishideas.org/articles/israel-tiny-nation-great-destiny]
For people who taught the world to protect its citizens and community, advocating for global responsibility, it is time that the world advocated for them. Show your support for Israel, a nation born on the tears and sweat of the people who descend from the creators of the first justice system, a nation who honors the commandments, who offers peace to the world.
As we think about Parshat Shoftim this Shabbat, we must keep Israel in our hearts, minds, and on our tongues– in our discussions and prayers.
For more information, please see:
Reflections on Parshat Ki Teitzei & 9.11.2001:
“You Shall Not Forget!”
Many of you may be wondering what this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19), and September 11th, 2001 might have in common? I find it fitting that this week’s parsha falls out just before the tenth anniversary of 9.11.2001–
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei or “When You Go Out,” relays 74 of our 613 commandments. The last words of the Parsha summarize the last commandment: “You shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:19). Don’t these words echo familiarly within you? It is the commandment borne of 9.11 that every American seems to reiterate. What is it that Parshat Ki Teitzei is commanding us not to forget though? It certainly can’t be 9.11, even if it has been adopted by American’s since the infamous date, can it?
Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt, that he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear G-d. It shall be that when HaShem [L-rd], your G-d, gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the Land that HaShem, your G-d, gives you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven– you shall not forget!
Amalek turned on the Israelites, attacking them from behind, as they fled from slavery and torture in Egypt. Amalek attacked the weak, in their weakened state, with no regard for the repercussions. Thus, in Exodus we are told that “HaShem maintains a war against Amalek, from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16). What does that mean, that the war continues generation after generation? I have heard it suggested that Amalek stands not only for a nation in the biblical sense, but also for an ideology– this is the ideology of blind hatred. An ideology that continues to be fought against, generation after generation. This is why we mustn’t forget. This is why we must stamp out the memory of such blind hatred that knows no bounds and cannot be logically dismantled, as it knows no logic– it knows only the propaganda of hate.
We find an Amalek in every generation. Hence, that brings us to the modern-day. Who is the modern-day Amalek? Who has ownership of the modern-day ideology of blind hatred? Radical Islamic Fundamentalism is the ideology of modern-day Amalek. Why is this the ideology of blind hatred? Well, they attempt to stamp out values of human rights, democracy, and peace. This is why they attacked the United States of America on 9.11 and Israel on a daily basis– among numerous other countries who don’t bow down to their radical ideology– we represent those values. Palestinian textbooks show no Israel on their map, no two-state solution. All of Israel is labeled “Palestine.” Freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the rights of women– all freedoms we enjoy in the West and Israel– are nonexistent according to Radical Islamic Fundamental Ideology, the foundation of the so-called state of “Palestine”.
The first notion of modern-day “Palestine” was conceived after the founding of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), a self-proclaimed terrorist organization that wishes to use force and armed struggle to obliterate the infidels (i.e. all those who do not adhere to their ideology of hate). The PLO was founded three years before the Six Day War in 1967, which is when Israel acquired Gaza, the West Bank, and the Sinai Delta (which is now in the hands of Egypt, given away through peace agreements) in a war of defense, after surrounding Arab communities attacked Israel. The PLO now operates under the name of the PA or the Palestinian Authority, which is that same entity that is seeking statehood in mid-September from the United Nations. Should we grant the PA their own state, just days after the tenth anniversary of 9.11? Is that how we reward terrorism, brutal force, the suppression of freedom and human rights, the killing of innocent civilians?
Now is the time to listen to the Torah commandments to “remember what Amalek did to [us]” and to “wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven.” Now is the time to remember how modern-day Amalek attacked us in our weakest spot, by targeting our civilians on a normal workday without provocation. Now is the time to wipe out their radical ideology of hatred. Now is the time to “not forget!” Now, more than ever, we need to heed the words of such commandments:
Do not legitimize the ideology of hate by giving the PA a state from which to continually spew their propaganda to the world.
Remember, the Torah is speaking to us about 9.11, the recent terror attacks in Israel, and all crimes of terror, when we are commanded: “You Shall Not Forget!”
Thoughts on Parshat Lech Lecha: The Journey of the Baal Teshuva
This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, details Avram’s journey (out of his land to Eretz Yisrael) from which he forges a new identity as Avraham, adding the letter ה Hay (as in G-d’s name) to denote his newfound relationship with G-d. He knows from an early age that the way of his father (a creator of idols) is not correct, and he endeavors to find the truth, leaving his land, his community, and his home behind in a struggle to find ultimate meaning, to find himself, to find G-d. Indeed, commentaries explain “lech” as “go” and “lecha” as “to yourself.” Thus, the first words of this parsha are often translated as “go to find yourself.” In going to find one’s innermost self, Avraham goes to find G-d. In a way, Avraham is the first baal teshuva, “Master of Return.” He leaves his comforts in life, rejecting the way that he has always known, in order to pursue the bigger questions.
Now, it is a staple of Judaism that one is not allowed to put himself in danger, if it can be avoided. Was Avraham Aveinu putting himself in danger? Clearly, he was traveling to an unknown destination across new lands, without his support system of a family and community. To any observer, he would most certainly be putting himself into a number of untenable situations. However, he did so in pursuit of truth, of righteousness, of G-d. Thus, he had G-d’s blessing along the way, and danger cannot lurk where G-d’s blessing is present.
Avraham’s journey was both physical and spiritual in nature. Today, the journey of the ordinary baal teshuva is much the same. Sometimes, we physically leave our community to go in search of an observant community, where we will find others with whom we can identify. Similarly, we leave our homes and the way of our parents to forge a new path, also one of righteousness, truth, G-d. Sometimes, we leave our land behind and travel to Eretz Yisrael making Aliyah, just as Avraham Aveinu did. Likewise, we also encounter obstacles from which we must persevere and tests through which we must pass. These may be in the form of our parents, who may see our newfound observance as a rejection of the way in which they raised us. It may come in the form of our siblings or friends, who can not identify with what we now find fulfilling, meaningful, and pleasurable. It may be in the form of our community, in which we may have to leave work early on Fridays to ensure we are home in time for Shabbos, which may not be very appealing to our bosses. Obstacles and tests may come in many forms, but we must remember the example of Avraham Aveinu– Even when it may seem uncomfortable or dangerous to forge ahead; nevertheless, danger cannot lurk where G-d is present.
G-d is with us on all of our journeys, whether physical, spiritual, or a combination. Indeed, it is G-d who sends us on these journeys, who is there with us when we may stumble over obstacles, when we may, at times, sense no path in sight (as Avraham journeyed on an unknown path to an unknown destination, with nothing but the truth to motivate him and G-d to guide him), when we may react to tests that serve to only make our journey more meaningful.
An older woman who attended shul with her husband had once remarked rhetorically, “Oh aren’t you so lucky to be so young and beautiful?” She said this to me as she was leaving; her husband had been standing by the exit waiting for her. I just laughed and blushed a bit. Really, I had wanted to respond, “Aren’t you so lucky to have someone to share this experience with, to understand why it is that you love to go to shul, to feel what you feel,” but I didn’t actually say anything. Indeed, I had once expressed to my older cousin– who had already made the same journey that I was embarking on– that I had suffered from severe sadness and disappointment whenever I would go to shul all by myself and see everybody else walking in with a mother, father, siblings, an entire family. To know that I was all by myself, to know that none of my family members would participate in this simple experience with me, to know that none of them shared the contentment that I felt when I attended shul each Shabbat left me with a profound sadness. My cousin told me not to be upset, and that I wasn’t alone: “They say that angels escort you to and from shul, so you are never alone.” Those words have stayed with me, and I am reminded of them when I walk into shul with nobody but my angels by my side.
Know that you are never alone– G-d sends angels to escort you on your journey, even as G-d spurs your journey, motivates you to continue on, and journeys with you. When G-d sends one to go find oneself, he is sending us to go find our innermost core, the part of us in which we carry Him– He is sending us to find Him.