BESHALACH (Exodus 13:17 - 17:16)

February 6, 2009

The Parashah for today is Beshalach - Deliverance and the Song of the Sea. It deals with the Exodus.

Some doubt the authenticity of the Exodus, citing various scientific and historical investigations that call its occurrence into doubt, if not into question altogether. Some regard this as a critical issue, as the Exodus is regarded by many as the cornerstone of our faith. Many of our rituals and practices invoke the memory of the event ( Friday night Kiddush) and our view of Hashem includes the view that He is the One who freed us from  Egypt.

But I think it unhelpful if not unwise to focus only on the actuality of the Exodus, for it has been observed that something can be true without being real. And matters of faith including, if not especially, the Exodus are in that category...serving as it does as a metaphor for liberation, regardless of its actual occurrence or not. But that is an issue for another presentation.

One lesson of the Exodus is that Hashem, in His justice, uplifted His Chosen Nation from bondage and made its people free. There is much to debate about whether it is truly  justice which Hashem meted out to the Egyptians, given the terrible things which befall them.

However, there is no debate about the centrality of JUSTICE in Judaism. And why that is, I invite you to think about with me.

One way to define Justice is to describe what it is not.

This is an example of what is NOT Justice.

A man walks into the lawyer's office and asks, "How much would it cost me to ask you three questions?"

The lawyer thinks for a moment and says "$100,000."

The man gasps and, taken a bit aback, says, "Don't you think that's a bit much for just three questions?"

The lawyer thinks again for a moment and says, "No I don't. What's your third question."

By justice I mean not only a judicial system but a set of relations that allow for disputes to be settled in a civilized manner. (Incidentally, Freud submitted that civilization began the first time a man hurled an insult instead of a rock).

I think one reason that Justice is so crucial is that without it, heavy limitations are placed on how much a society can develop and evolve...justice being a fundamental building block. That is, without Justice there is no security, since anyone can be persecuted and prosecuted at any moment, at the whim of those in power.

And without security, there can hardly be the emotional, cognitive and moral freedom to think and create in ways that can advance society. Though there are many contributors, consider how much the world has changed since the Justice system developed and secured by our Founders just over 200 years ago...much more than in past millennia.

Indeed, if one is ongoingly worried about one's freedom and even survival, one can hardly think of much else, let alone have the luxury of thinking creatively and innovatively.

But wouldn't that hold true for any group? So why does Justice hold such a central place in Judaism? But first let's be sure that this concept is indeed central, before accounting for why.

Dr. Gerhard Falk asserts "There are so many reminders in the Torah concerning the need for justice in the world that it can be said with confidence that a concern with justice is one of the most important messages of Judaism to the peoples of this earth." 

For example, from the prophet Amos: "Take away from Me the noise of thy songs; And let Me not hear the melody of thy psalteries. But let justice well up as waters, And righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:23, 24)

Also in Amos (5:4) we read, "hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gates of the land."  

Jeremiah 22:15-16 is translated, "If one practices justice and righteousness, if one champions the cause of the poor, then it will be well with one....."

King Solomon asserts: To do righteousness and justice is preferred by God above sacrifice. (Proverbs 21:3)

The psalmist writes: "Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute" (Psalms 82:3-4).

Isaiah tells us: The Lord of Hosts shall be exalted in justice, The Holy God shows Himself holy in righteousness. (Isaiah 5:16)

The prophets constantly stress the importance of applying justice: Learn to do well--seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.... Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness. (Isaiah 1:17,27) 

To practice justice is considered among the highest demands of prophetic religion: It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, And what the Lord doth require of thee: Only to do justly, love mercy And walk humbly with thy God. (Micah 6:8)

"Justice, Justice you shall pursue."  (Deuteronomy 16:20)

Richard Schwartz notes that the word "justice" is repeated. He notes that "this is a very infrequent occurrence in the Torah. When words are repeated, it is generally to add emphasis. Second, we are told to pursue justice. Hence we are not to wait for the right opportunity, the right time and place, but are to pursue or run after opportunities to practice justice."

Justice is such an important concept in Judaism that the patriarch Abraham even pleads with God to practice justice re Sodom and Gemorah: "That be far from Thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked...shall not the judge of all the earth do justly?" (Genesis 18:25)

Innumerable other admonitions to establish justice are found in the Torah and have made their way into the text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and other documents of American history.

Interestingly, the members of our Supreme Court call themselves "Justices" although the Constitution calls them judges.

It's important to differentiate justice from revenge and retribution, although sometimes it's difficult to make these distinctions. Is the following an example of justice, revenge, retribution, all three...?

A man comes home from work and his wife asks him to fix a squeaking door. He replies, "Do I look like a carpenter?"

The next days she requests he repair a leaky faucet.  He says, "Do I look like a plumber?"

The following day she muses if he would correct a shorted out lamp. He retorts, "Do I look like an electrician?"

Upon coming home the next day he notices the door no longer squeaks, the faucet is not dripping, and the lamp is lit.

When asked about these repairs, his wife reports that the handsome bachelor next door fixed them all.

"How much did he charge?"

"He said I could have sex with him or bake him a cake."

"What kind of cake did you make?"

"Do I look like Betty Crocker?"

OK, so we see the centrality of justice, but why so, especially to Judaism?

"Tzedakah" is the Hebrew word for the acts we call "charity" in English... The word "tzedakah" is derived from the Hebrew root Tzadei-Dalet-Qof, meaning righteousness, justice or fairness. In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due."

Social justice is pervasive throughout the laws and ethics of Jewish tradition. As a people we are charged with being a "light unto the nations" in order to bring God's salvation across the earth (Isaiah 49:6). The sages of the Talmud introduced the doctrine of "Tikkun Olam," repairing the world, as a legitimate justification for legal innovations.

Some believe the  prophetic legacy of Tikkun Olam is why the Jewish people were put on this earth, hence the Jewish passion to repair the world.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: By three things is the world preserved: on judgment (justice), truth and peace. And all three are (in effect) one. If judgment is executed and truth is vindicated, peace prevails.

In Everyman's Talmud Abraham Cohen notes "The Holy One, blessed be He, declares, The righteousness and justice you perform are dearer to me than the Temple (Deut. R. V. 3). Among the answers to the question, Upon what does the world stand? is this: Upon one pillar and its name is the Righteous, as it is said, The righteous is the foundation of the world" (Prov. 10:25)

God instructs Moses to assert that judges and officials "shall govern the People with due justice. You shall not govern unfairly" (Deu 16:18).

Rabbi Bradley Artson writes "with these words...Moses insists that Justice is an eternal religious obligation, at the very core of what it means to be a Jew." (I wonder if this is part of the reason for the intense disappointment, outrage and scorn re Bernard Madoff, i.e., not only the loss of an enormous amount of money but the fundamental betrayal of God's law!)

In any case, here we have an answer to why Justice is so central to Judaism.

The practice of justice is part of the symbolic betrothal between the Jewish people and God:

And I will betroth thee unto Me forever; Yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness, justice, lovingkindness, and compassion. And I will betroth thee unto Me in faithfulness. And thou shalt know the Lord. (Hosea 2:21-22)

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz notes the Torah tells us that Abraham truly became the father of the Jewish people when he heeded God's call to adopt a sacred purpose, spreading righteousness and justice in the world (Gen. 18:19). The Jewish people would not be merely a people apart, a separate ethnic and political unit. Instead, they would be a people bound to a higher calling. (Note that the tablets Moses brought from Sinai are not called the Ten suggestions.) Similarly, according to God's covenant with Abraham, every Jew is called upon not simply to believe in the values of righteousness and justice, but to act on them: motivated by moral responsibility, to advocate--as Abraham did--on behalf of the vulnerable of all nations.

Hence the overriding importance of Justice in Judaism.

That's what I think...what do you think?



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