Staffs, Statutes, and the Cries of a Child

In the year 399 BCE, the great philosopher Socrates was arrested and tried on charges of heresy and corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens. He was convicted, and sentenced to death. His students begged him to run away with them, but he refused. First, he gave several practical reasons – he did not think it was going to work, and he did not want to put anyone else at risk. But then, and most famously, he articulated a philosophic reason. By living in Athens all these years, he said, he had knowingly consented to abide by all of the city’s laws and standards – including the possibility of being arrested and tried by its democratically elected government. To disobey now, when push came to shove – even at the cost of his own life – would be damaging to the entire social contract, and to society itself. The laws were paramount, he argued, and the laws had to be obeyed.

In the year 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, writing a letter. Citing religious leaders and philosophers from across the twenty three centuries that separated him from Socrates, from St. Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Martin Buber, King distinguished between just laws and unjust laws. Unjust laws, said King, have no authority, no legitimacy, and they must be disobeyed. Not can be disobeyed, but must be disobeyed. They are, in fact, not laws at all.

Using the language of the civil rights movement, King defined an unjust law as one imposed by a majority on a minority, a law that reinforces an unjustified superiority for some people over others. With all due respect, to King, and based on this morning’s Torah portion, I’d like to suggest a slightly different, but more contemporary definition.

This morning’s portion begins with the words “Zot Chukat HaTorah,” these are the statutes of the Torah. The Hebrew word “chok” means statute, but it also has the meaning of a “staff,” especially the staff carried by a leader – who is also a lawgiver. We read how Moses, in anger and frustration, strikes a rock with his staff to bring forth water for the people who were complaining against him, instead of speaking to it as God had instructed him. For this sin, Moses is condemned to die in the wilderness before reaching the promised land. Later, the people sing in celebration of the miracle of the water they received from their “mechokek,” their leader and lawgiver, who carries a staff.

Statutes, like staffs, are powerful tools. They can chart a path forward, nourish and sustain, but they can also be wielded and swung like weapons – and sometimes both at the same time. And even as Moses achieved the result that he wanted – the Israelites were saved from their thirst – he was still held accountable, chastised, and punished. Perhaps, then, an unjust statute is one that violently strikes in order to draw forth the water.

Another point. The commentators struggle to explain why Moses stumbled now. Why, at this critical moment, did he wield his authority like a weapon – after bearing the burden of leadership with grace and humility for forty long years?

Miriam was there with Moses at the very beginning, watching intently as he, as a newborn, floated down the Nile in a basket. The Torah relates how Moses was saved by Pharaoh’s daughter, who was profoundly moved by the cries she heard emanating from his basket. But Miriam must have also heard those cries – and, despite the danger she faced, she refused to turn away, she refused to stop watching and stop listening, she refused to stop bearing witness to his cries until she knew he would be safe. It is perhaps not a coincidence that, with Miriam gone, Moses responded to the cries of the people with a flash of impatience and aggression.

The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, shared a home with his oldest married son, Rabbi Dov Ber Schneuri, who was known for the intensity with which he studied Torah. One night, one of Rabbi Dov Bear’s young children fell out of his crib and began to cry, but Rabbi Dov Ber, did not notice. The infant’s grandfather, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, himself also deeply engrossed in the late-night Torah study, did hear – he went into the baby’s room, soothed him, and put him back to sleep. Through all this Rabbi Dov Ber remained quite oblivious. The next morning, Rabbi Schneur Zalman turned to his son and admonished him, telling him that the very goal of Torah study, the goal of any higher pursuit or ideal, is to become more sensitive to the cry of a child. If Torah study causes someone to become oblivious to the cry of a child, it is missing the point at the most fundamental level.

Moses held the staff, performed the miracles, and set down the statutes, but Miriam’s presence and example reminded him to respond to the cries of the people with grace and sensitivity. Miriam reminded him that, if he didn’t hear the cries of the child, then he, too, was missing the point.

The United States is an exceptional country, in part, because it is not founded upon a tribal connection to an ancestral land, but upon a declaration of the inherent value and dignity of human life. Sometimes that core value is manifest; and other times it’s observed in the breach. But our best sense of patriotism and service to the American idea should, also, consistently pushing us to be ever-more sensitive to the cries of a child. I think it’s fair to say that, if our understanding of American law or the American national interest renders us oblivious to the cries of a child, then we, too, are missing the point.

That fundamental truth is why this past week saw a unanimity among faith groups unparalleled in recent American history. It why mainline protestants stood with evangelicals, who stood with Catholic bishops. It is why the organized Jewish world responded with a show of unity across dozens of denominations and organizations – from the Orthodox Union to the Union of Reform Judaism, Jewish conservatives and Conservative Jews – speaking in a single voice unheard since Natan Sharansky was trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

It is why we are so relieved that the Trump administration officially ended the policies that allowed for the needless tearing apart of families. Simply stated, statutes that are oblivious to the cries of a child – to the cries that we all witnessed and heard this week – are the violent smashing of a staff against the rock. They are unjust laws.

It is why we will continue to watch carefully over the coming days and weeks for the swift reunification of the thousands of families that have been disrupted – for the thousands of children sitting in detention centers across this country to be reunited with their parents. It really does not matter whether this is resolved by executive leadership or congressional legislation – by staff or by statute. Now that we’ve heard the cries of the child, now that we are, like Miriam, are bearing witness, we simply can not turn away

Adapted from sermon delivered at
The Hampton Synagogue
Saturday, June 23, 2018

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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