Most nations can exist without doing anything other than being. They go on year after year whether rain or shine. Sometimes war breaks out and they are defeated or even conquered. But a few more years pass and the occupiers are forced out or simply go home — and life goes back to normal.
Not so, Israel. The future of Israel depends on their loyalty to and faith in G-d. When they are G-d’s children, they thrive; enemies don’t make it past the door; nobody goes hungry, and the divine spirit radiates.
But when Israel abandons G-d to join the nations then fortunes decline. Israel is constantly attacked by their neighbors; their homes and fields exposed to plunder; the people become helpless, a ragdoll of the nations.
In this week’s Torah portion Kedoshim, the Children of Israel are told G-d’s requirements for a holy people. That is their role: “You shall be holy because I, the Lord your G-d, am holy,” The bar is high: Adopt G-d’s ways and maintain a holiness that reflects that of the Almighty. Holiness demands separation and vigilance. Popularity is to be shunned.
And yet when it comes down to the details, G-d does not ask the Israelites to turn into ascetics — to sit cross-legged and chant all day in an Indian temple. There’s no need to meditate, turn vegan, promote alternative lifestyles or preach the dangers of climate change.
What the Torah wants is for Jews to build a just society. The first rule of order is to establish an independent judiciary that will not serve the regime rather uphold the law. The law is above the people, particularly the leadership.
You shall commit no injustice in judgment; you shall not favor a poor person or respect a great man; you shall judge your fellow with righteousness. [Leviticus 19:15]
Sounds simple. But the brutal reality is that judges are people, who, like other careerists, are frightened over their future. They see before them a powerful and rich man who is clearly in the wrong. But that man can promote or block a judge’s career. The litigant might have even paid for the judge’s reelection campaign and expects a payback.
Not so simple now, n’est pas?
What’s worse is you might be a judge sitting on a case that has garnered the attention of the international community. You might have been told of phone calls from ambassadors of the great powers who want to see an open-and-shut case. Don’t waste our time, they say. We all know he is guilty so just make it fast.
The judge might acquiesce, but the consequences will be tragic — both for himself as well as society. Often, he quickly finds that he has lost everything — credibility, trust and respect. Here’s how the great 11th Century commentator Rashi puts it: A judge who corrupts the law is “called unjust, hated and disgusting, fit to be destroyed, and an abomination.” The Torah is not impressed by the judge’s rationalization that he is following orders or even preventing international condemnation or an international tribunal. In Israel, the law is the law.
But justice anywhere requires independence. And no judge can count on being independent unless his country is free. That means his country is sovereign, able to make its own decisions without succumbing to foreign pressure. The price is that the country must be willing to sacrifice the largesse of its friends as well as withstand the threats of its enemies. In other words, it must be willing to stand alone.
History has shown that there is no such thing as neutrality. Germany dismissed Belgium’s neutrality in both World War I and II, slicing through that little country to get to France. In contrast, Berlin honored Switzerland’s neutrality in both wars.
Why? Because the Swiss made it clear to Germany that they would fight to the death any invasion. The Swiss could agree to be Hitler’s friend but never his conquest. And the fuhrer backed down.
And you shall be holy to Me, for I, the Lord, am holy, and I have distinguished you from the peoples, to be Mine. [Leviticus 20:26]
That is G-d’s litmus test of loyalty. He separated the Israelites of then and the Jews of today from the nations. If Israel maintains this, they will never want for anything. They will be free, sovereign and prosperous; their judges will be independent. The people will be treated with kindness and respect. That’s the humane way, and not coincidentally, the way of the Torah.
But there is a caveat. If Israel chooses to woo the nations and reject their uniqueness, if they insist on an “open relationship,” then G-d will respond in kind. Those same nations will turn against them and wreak destruction. That was the story of the empires of Babylon, Greece, Rome and the Western powers today. Most of them started out as friends. They ended up as cruel and bloody enemies. The neutrality option didn’t exist.
Rashi could not have put it better. Here’s how he interprets G-d’s message.
If you are separated from them [through your observance of Torah], you will be Mine, but if not, you will belong to Nebuchadnezzar and his ilk.