Seek Justice: Strengthen the Victim
A common theme in the prophesies of Yirmiyahu (Jerimiah) and Yeshayahu (Isaiah) – read in synagogues throughout the world during the mourning period for the destruction of our holy Temple – is their stunningly harsh words for fellow Jews who were engaged in bringing sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem while relegating the core values of our Torah – honesty, integrity, and kindness – to the back burner.
This past Shabbat, we read about Isaiah (1:1-27), speaking in God’s name, and asking the Jews of his day, “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? (1:11),” and later Isaiah exclaims that God is “weary of your sacrifices (1:14)”, and that He “will not listen to your prayers (1:15).”
Jeremiah (7:22) similarly dismisses sacrifices when they are not accompanied by the core values of integrity and compassion; “I never instructed your ancestors [about bringing sacrifices] when I redeemed them from the land of Egypt.”
At first strike, their words would seem to be puzzling in light of the fact that sacrifices were a core element of the Temple service. Additionally, back when one’s wealth was measured by the number of cattle he owned, donating animals to the service of God was analogous to someone nowadays taking a car off his driveway and donating it to the local synagogue.
In context, though, the intent of the remarks of our prophets become very clear. It was certainly laudable to purchase and bring sacrifices, but the message driven home by Jerimiah and Isaiah was that those positive commandments were mere adornments to the core values of our Torah. And they vividly describe what the Jews needed to do in order to redeem themselves. “Purify yourselves, seek justice, strengthen the victim, and take up the cause of the widow/orphan (Isaiah 1:16-17).
It goes deeper, though. Who brought sacrifices? Rich folks and the well-connected – the “people who knew people,” as they were the only ones who could afford to donate expensive animals to the Temple. They were also best positioned to support the weak and voiceless among us – or conversely had the power and connections to crush them underfoot.
I believe that the searing words of our prophets were directed to the prominent people who held positions of power in those days – those who were sipping fine wine in the “VIP Lounge” near the Temple as their choice sacrifices were being offered. “Don’t you get it?” implore Jerimiah and Isaiah! Your sacrifices are meaningless – indeed offensive to God – so long as you don’t use the blessings He gave you to help those who so desperately need your support.”
Forgive me for being so bold, but I am confident that Jerimiah and Isaiah would be directing similar expressions if not stronger ones to the evil and soulless people in positions of power who are giving aid, comfort and protection to abusers and pedophiles while intimidating their broken victims into silence, to those people who are raising money for the legal defense of these monsters and neglecting to support the therapeutic treatment of their suffering victims.
It is for that reason that our prophets exhort us to speak truth to power when need be in order promote social justice – for this is the very essence of Hashem’s charge to us that we follow in His ways. As the Talmud notes (Shabbos 133b; Shemos, 15:2) “Just as God is merciful and compassionate, so too, you [humans] should be merciful and compassionate.” This is how we “beautify” God – by emulating His attributes.
This was a central theme of an ELI Talk I gave earlier this year, titled, “No More Standing Idly By — Ending Child Abuse” where I mentioned a meaningful quote that had a profound impact on my life. It was from Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, one of the great Torah sages of the 19th century, who famously stated that one of the main functions of a Rabbi is to advocate for and support the weakest members of his community. Why would that be the case? Because powerful and well-connected folks rarely need the assistance of the rabbi to get what it is they wish. But the weak and the voiceless desperately need him to advocate for them.
May we merit to fulfill the timeless charge of Jerimiah (9:23) in the closing words of today’s reading, “For only with this may one glorify himself; become wise and [get to] know Me [contemplate how to better emulate the ways of God], for I am God who does kindness, justice and righteousness.
In the merit of our supporting the weak and voiceless among us, may God dry our tears and comfort us with the rebuilding of our holy Temple, speedily in our times.