A community needs a legal system with an agreed-upon framework of courts, judges, magistrates, laws, and a means of changing laws. Is justice a necessary consequence of obeying the law? Of course not. Recognition that obedience leads to injustice is the reason laws get changed. We can never anticipate every consequence or inadequacy of a particular law as circumstances change, so the legal system must be flexible enough to respond accordingly. Judging requires judgement. A judge should be knowledgeable, wise, and compassionate, and be able to exercise discretion. Because they eliminate judgement, “zero-tolerance” laws and policies are too brittle and often lead to absurd situations, like suspending a six-year-old for pointing his fingers at a classmate in the shape of a gun, or gratuitously cruel ones, like separating an 18-month-old from his mother for over two months while she legally seeks asylum though she has been charged with no crime.
Besides an amendable legal system and wise judges, we need a thoughtful and educated populace. This is especially true in a democracy, where the people govern. They must be able to recognize what is fact and what is opinion. This makes a free and respected press vital. Denigration or dismissal of facts easily leads to unsound decision making with dangerous consequences.
This week’s Torah portion concerns the framework of the Israelites’ judicial system. Even though it’s not a democracy, all the people must still study and respect the Law, not just because they will be punished if they don’t obey, but because they must pursue justice. In verse 16:20, we read, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” “Tzedek,” justice, includes not simply mechanical obedience but compassion and fairness. Today, we use the term “tzedakah” as a synonym for charity. According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary , “fair” implies an elimination of one’s own feelings, prejudices, and desires so as to achieve a proper balance of conflicting interests, while “just” implies an exact following of a standard of what is right and proper. This is so “that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (16:20) and “sweep out evil from your midst .” (17:7, 17:12, 19:19).
The repetition of “tzedek” in 16:20 has been subject to many interpretations over the millennia (surprise), as I wrote here in 2015. Several from the 9th through 20th centuries are presented by Rabbi Jonathan Kremer in Justice, Pursue Justice . One of these is the Sefat Emet (19th c.), whose reason for repetition is “We have to keep pursuing justice, knowing that we have not yet attained it.”
The laws in Shoftim, are tools to enable the Israelites to set up a decent and fair society, including laws we’ve already read, like the cities of refuge for those who kill unintentionally, and, once more, the just compensation formula. War is to be controlled: Cities can sue for peace; fruit trees are not destroyed; and the military draft allows exemptions for new homeowners, those who have a newly planted vineyard, the affianced, and those whose fear who infect others.
No one is above the law, not the priests, not the magistrates, not the Levites, not even a king. A king must not enrich himself though his office, nor have too many wives. He must know the law, even write out two copies of it which he will keep with him and refer to. The knowledge of his legal limits should keep him from “having a haughty heart.” Wouldn’t it be something if those who claim to be “God-fearing” would focus on this section of the Bible and require every President (or candidate?) to write out two copies of the Constitution and demonstrate a thorough understanding and acceptance of it, especially the checks and balances on the President’s power?
From the March 1995 “Reader’s Digest”
There Oughta Be A Law By Richard Johnson
It seems that we have laws for everything but the stuff that can really get on our nerves. For instance, “there oughta be a law” to protect citizens from the airline passenger who maintains his seat in a fully reclined position while an in-flight meal is being served. So I propose that we start passing some much-needed legislation to crack down on the following offenses:
Resisting A Rest: Repeatedly disrupting an entire row of patrons at a theater or sports event by heading for refreshments, frequent rest-room visits, and leg-stretching.
Euphonious Assault: Playing the car radio at ear-splitting volume so the next driver is blasted into the back seat.
Lane Sharking: Parking over two spaces in a crowded lot so that the adjacent space is rendered useless.
Coffee-right Infringement: Hurry-up restaurant employees who are too quick to bring your bill at the end of a meal.
Violation Of Individual Swivel Rights: Rotating a circular merchandise rack while another shopper is browsing on the other side.
Breaking And Exiting: Slipping away after dropping a bottle of pancake syrup while in an empty grocery-store aisle.
Sorry I Missed Him’meanor: Intentionally returning unwanted phone calls when you know the party who called will be out.
Kidyapping: Failure to get off the subject of your children.
Poly-gamey: Attempting to watch two televised football games and a tennis tournament simultaneously on a Sunday afternoon by means of rapid-fire, remote-control channel surfing.
Labor Fraud: Politicians who roll up their sleeves only when posing for campaign photographs.
I am over 60 and the Armed Forces thinks I’m too old to track down terrorists. You can’t be older than 42 to join the military. They’ve got the whole thing ass-backwards.
Instead of sending 18-year-olds off to fight, they ought to take us old guys. You shouldn’t be able to join a military unit until you’re at least 35.
For starters, researchers say 18-year-olds think about sex every 10 seconds. Old guys only think about sex a couple of times a month, leaving us more than 280,000 additional seconds per day to concentrate on the enemy.
Young guys haven’t lived long enough to be cranky, and a cranky soldier is a dangerous soldier. An 18-year-old doesn’t even like to get up before 10am. Old guys always get up early to pee, so what the hell. Besides, I’m tired and can’t sleep and since I’m already up, I may as well be up killing some fanatical son-of-a-***.
If captured we couldn’t spill the beans because we’d forget where we put them. In fact, name, rank, and serial number would be a real brainteaser.
Boot camp would be easier for old guys. We’re used to getting screamed and yelled at and we’re used to soft food. We’ve also developed an appreciation for guns. We’ve been using them for years as an excuse to get out of the house, away from the screaming and yelling.
They could lighten up on the obstacle course however.
Actually, the running part is kind of a waste of energy, too. I’ve never seen anyone outrun a bullet.
Let us old guys track down those terrorists. The last thing an enemy would want to see is a couple million old farts with bad attitudes and automatic weapons.
HEY… How about recruiting women over 50! You think MEN have attitudes?
If nothing else, put them on border patrol. They’ll have it secured the first night!
Quotes about Fairness
I keep telling myself to calm down, to take less of an interest in things and not to get so excited, but I still care a lot about liberty, freedom of speech and expression, and fairness in journalism. Kate Adie
Though force can protect in emergency, only justice, fairness, consideration and cooperation can finally lead men to the dawn of eternal peace. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Fairness is what justice really is. Potter Stewart
There is an important idea in psychology: The ‘just world theory,’ which says that it is very important for us to convince ourselves that the world is just and things happen for a reason. That there is some elemental fairness in everything, which creates the illusion of justice. Malcolm Gladwell
The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children. Marian Wright EdelmanTop of FormBottom of FormTop of Form
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