David Lerner

Pursuing Justice

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

This was a strange summer.  To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “It was the best of summers; it was the worst of summers.”  This dichotomous summer was filled with some of the best weather we have ever had in New England.  It was clear and sunny, warm, but not too warm.  Weather
It did not rain that much and when it did, it rained at night or during the week.  I think there was only one weekend when it rained; I made sure we were away for that.

But on the other hand, what a terrible summer.  The world is a mess.  I was thinking about this terrible tragedy of the young girl who killed her shooting instructor with an Uzi.  uziWhat kind of world do we live in?  How sad it is that we cannot move forward and lower gun violence in this country.  And I have been trying to wrap my head around the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri.

Stephen Sotloff
Stephen Sotloff

But the worst tragedies are occurring in other parts of the globe – from Ebola in Africa to Russia invading the Ukraine, from Hamas in Gaza to ISIS in Syria, we see violence and hate; a world where one extremist group tries to outdo the next.  Who would have thought that there could be a terrorist group that makes Al Qaeda look moderate?  This hateful ideology led to a summer of constant sirens for our sisters and brothers in Israel.  And Hamas operatives made life miserable for Palestinians in Gaza over the course of seven weeks of their non-stop rocket and terror tunnel attacks.

Many of us have been concerned about Israel.  Almost every morning this summer, I woke up and looked at my cell phone to follow the updates of new rocket attacks on Israel.  We could hear each siren with the Tzeva Adom – Red Alert

But at the end of the day, what could we do, what could Israel do – facing an enemy who has so little regard for human life – whether it is their own children or ours.  That is a frightening reality.

All this can be overwhelming.

Part of us wants to help, to do something productive; but, at the same time, part of us wants to run away.  I know that I have wanted to escape all the negative news.

RDL Houseboat_07-27-14
Rabbi David Lerner and sons on houseboat

But when I did, and enjoyed some family vacation time in Canada, I felt removed, but I also felt guilty.

I purposefully did not buy a data plan in Canada so we were able to cut ourselves off from the world a little bit.  But it did not totally work because of the guilt – how can we be enjoying Canada, when our sisters and brothers or cousins are under fire….  Even without a data plan, updates from the war found us.

So, what do you do?  There was very little we could do.  And I understand the impulse to throw your hands up in despair.

In the ancient world, that was often the case.  During the time of the Torah, people often felt that they were stuck.  They could have little impact on the world and so what was the point.  In the ancient world, most people would just shrug.  And that’s if they knew what was going on, which, much of the time, they didn’t.

And I understand that impulse and I feel it myself:  “What can I do??”

But the Torah comes into that world, that mindset with a different approach.  The Torah says we have to act – even if we may not change the world, we have to try.  If we don’t try, then what’s the point of being here?

Our parashah states this clearly:  tzedek, tzedek tirdof – we must pursue justice.  We must act.

Scales of Justice

You cannot bury your head in the sand.  As Jacob explained in his thoughtful d’var Torah, there are many theories about why the word tzedek is repeated.  But however you look at specifics, the main thrust is clear – this is a vital mitzvah.  You must be just, you must pursue justice.

And the word “tirdof – pursue” is the key.  You cannot simply be just in your own life and practice (though you should be that as well!); you must run after situations in the world that are crying out for justice.

The word rodef means to chase after – later in the Tanakh, in the Hebrew Bible, the Psalmist will have us bakeish shalom v’rodfeihu – seek peace and pursue it.  It means you have to go out of way – you cannot be just with your head in the sand.  You cannot be just alone.

You have to find examples of injustice in the world and try to do something about them.

*        *        *

At our opening staff meeting this week, I was showing some pictures from our summer vacation, when someone saw a picture of me speaking out at a Labor Rally and what was I doing there.  RDL at Labor Rally_06-30-14I responded that I was pursuing justice – a new owner bought a local nursing home in Lexington and he cut the wages of the employees by 40-60%.  This seemed to me to be a case of some injustice as became clear when I spoke to the workers.  So I tried to pursue justice.  The reality was I was asked to participate – sometimes you pursue justice and sometimes, people help you and point you in the right direction to pursue it!  In this case, it worked, since the strikes and rallies led the new owner to change his offer to his employees.

As we gather just before Labor Day, it is important both to acknowledge the value of every worker in this land and to protect their rights.

*        *        *

You have to do something.  The Torah presents us with a different view of the world – we are not trapped.  Things do not have to be the way they are.  They can be different; they can be better.

The Torah encourages us to look at the world not merely as it is, but as it could be and then, move ourselves and the world in that direction.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating examples of this in the pursuit of justice also occurs in this morning’s parashah.  In the ancient world, justice was meted out swiftly and sometimes unfairly (that is not to say that does not happen today – see how we mete out the death penalty here in the U.S., but it was much worse back then.)

When someone killed someone, the victim’s family would seek revenge by taking the life of the killer.  Even when the death occurred accidentally, this vigilante justice was enforced quickly.  The Torah says no.  We are going to try another approach.  That is not justice.  That is injustice.  We will save the life of the accidental killer allowing them to flee to a city of refuge, an ir miklat.

This was a most dramatic change – now, families who sought blood to avenge the death of their loved one were forced to temper their emotions.  This notion of justice is found throughout the Torah portion – capital cases would require two witnesses to convict; child sacrifice and other pagan practices were outlawed and even kings were brought under the law.  There will be one law for all and all must be treated the same under the law.

Finally, even warfare itself was brought under the law.  The notion that there are rules of war is something the Torah innovates.  While some of them may seem a bit harsh and outdated (when seen in the light of current practice), they were ahead of their times as they sought to limit “wanton destruction of life and property.  “[…They are among] the oldest known rules of war regulating the treatment of conquered people and territory.”  (Etz Hayim Humash)

Operation Protective Edge IDF FallenI am proud of the fact that modern Israel took these ideals and principles to heart as it fought this summer.  Israel could have eliminated the threat from Hamas quite quickly and easily by wiping out massive areas of the Gaza Strip.  Instead it worked hard to try to minimize the loss of life of civilians in Gaza.  While they were clearly not perfect and they made mistakes including some terrible ones (we mourn the loss of all innocents), it was also clear that they took great pains to avoid civilians from warning residents and using precise weaponry.  In addition, they sent in ground troops – both to eliminate the terror tunnels and to minimize the loss of life from weapons that had to be launched from great distances.  One could make the strong argument that many of the sixty-five Israeli soldiers who died lost their lives due to Israel’s sending its troops into harm’s way in an effort to reduce the loss of life of innocent civilians.

How sad that much of the world does not understand this.

When I think of our own actions over the summer, I knew we strove to lirdof tzedek to pursue justice for Israel.  We attended rallies including the large one in City Hall Plaza; we mourned the loss of life on both sides and recited the names of each Israel soldier and civilian killed as we did this morning.  We recited a prayer for Israel at each and every minyan.  We donated to causes to help Israel, especially for the soldiers and those most directly impacted by the traumas of the summer.  We reached out to our friends and family in Israel to let them know we were thinking of them.

And we spent an evening discussing Ari Shavit’s book:  My Promised Land.  Ari Shavit My Promised LandAs opposed to unhelpful emails that zing back and forth, over 50 people came to discuss a nuanced reading of Israel.  We shared our own different perspectives on Israel.  We did not all agree, but we grew from the experience.

It was also a kind of pursuit of justice – we were trying to hear each other and bring more justice by exploring the complexities of the situation.

But overall, we did not do nothing.  We do not despair.  As these wonderful haftarot of consolation remind us to – to be comforted, to be filled with hope, even in the face of difficulty.

Isaiah implores us that God, God – will comfort you.  Anokhi, Anokhi, hu menahemkhem.  God comforts us, but God’s nehamah – God’s consolation works hand in hand with the parashah.  Only when we are engaged in tzedek, when we are actively pursuing justice, then God’s full nehamah, God’s full measure of comfort is felt in the world.

As the summer draws to a close during this final month on the Jewish calendar, may we and the world be strengthened by our pursuit of justice and may that bring comfort and peace to the world.


About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.