[I am getting over a GI bug, so the nuts-and-bolts description of what is in Shoftim, from “In verse 16:20” through “haughty heart” is mainly lifted from last year. The rest is current.]
The Israelites are progressing toward a fair and just society after 40 years. The United States seems to have spent a similar amount of time regressing from the same, at an increasingly accelerated rate. What do I mean by that?
At our local OLLI, I’ve just started a course on LBJ’s Great Society, the climax both of a long period of progressivism and populism dating from the 1890’s and, more particularly, of the roughly three decades of enormous growth in both the economy and social rights that followed World War II. In 1945, the U.S. had a huge manufacturing base ready to roar into peacetime production, we faced no post-war depression, and we were the one world power left standing. We had no serious economic competition; pent-up domestic consumer demand and foreign recovery stoked by aid like the Marshall Plan gave us a huge customer base. Family real income grew evenly throughout all classes until about 1980. This affluent period was characterized by a sense that we could have both guns and butter – physical security and advancement of social rights. Increasing attention was paid to “doing the right thing,” the environment, consumer safety and health, and “quality of life.” Republicans and Democrats worked together to get things done. Interstate highways connected the nation. Judges increasingly had a mindset that they were to pursue justice.
But following the assassinations, the Vietnam war, Watergate, the growing income inequality and political polarization since 1980, we have gone backwards as a nation, at an accelerating rate. Today, “(p)eople in our increasingly mean and cruel government continue to get away with ignoring subpoenas and court orders and even their own rules, destroying the hopes of refugees, scarring children emotionally for life, breaking the law with impunity, appointing blatantly unqualified people to senior positions, destroying valuable and productive R&D labs and suppressing data.” (from Mattot-Masei 5779)
The journey of the Children of Israel is a mirror image of our deterioration since the energized post-WWII years. From the divided, polarized, and rebellious tribes of 38+ years before, the Israelites have communally progressed to the point where they can start to form a just society, sweeping out evil from their midst. And for that, they need a functioning judicial system, wise judges, and a populace and leadership that respect the Law. All must study the Law, not just to be able to obey it and avoid punishment, 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. The pursuit of justice is commanded 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, “… life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” War is to be waged with rules, so that cities can sue for peace; fruit trees are not destroyed; and the military draft allows compassionate 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.”
We do not have a king. But under our system of government, we do require a President who knows and protects the Constitution and who recognizes and accepts his legal limits (can you say, “emoluments clause”?). We also require a Congress that legislates thoughtfully for the public good; and a judiciary of knowledgeable, wise, and compassionate people who both respect the law and recognize the need for enough flexibility to adapt to change. What I see is an increasingly demented President who believes he is above the law and whose party is his chief enabler and echo chamber, a Congress paralyzed by those incapable of putting country above party, and a judiciary increasingly populated by inadequately assessed people whose overwhelming qualification is their political alignment.
This is a mean, uncivil time in which we must spend resources suing not only to get properly issued subpoenas obeyed and legally requested documents handed over, but to get soap and toothpaste for children whom we have caged though innocent of any crime. Cruel actions that may be technically legal, like ending medical deportation deferments, are embraced precisely because they are cruel, in the belief that being cruel demonstrates toughness and strength.
We have grown more divided and polarized and less willing to work together for the good of the country and to try to do what is morally the right thing to do. It is time for us to rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of a justice comprised of compassion and fairness.
A lawyer cross-examined the adversary’s main witness. “You claim to have stopped by Mrs. Edwards’ house just after breakfast. Will you tell the jury what she said?”
“Objection, your honor,” shouted the other lawyer.
There then followed a long argument between the lawyers as to whether the question was proper. Finally, after 45 minutes, the judge allowed it.
“So,” the first lawyer continued, “Please answer the question: What did Mrs. Edwards say when you went to her house after breakfast on December 3rd?”
“Nothing,” said the witness. “No one was home.”
A lawyer had just undergone surgery, and as he came out of the anesthesia, he said, “Why are all the blinds drawn, doctor?” There’s a big fire across the street and we didn’t want you to wake up and think the operation was a failure.
A lawyer defending a man accused of burglary tried this creative defense: “My client merely inserted his arm into the window and removed a few trifling articles. His arm is not himself, and I fail to see how you can punish the whole individual for an offense committed by his limb.”
“Well put,” the judge replied. “Using your logic, I sentence the defendant’s arm to one year’s imprisonment. He can accompany it or not, as he chooses.”
The defendant smiled. With his lawyer’s assistance he detached his artificial limb, laid it on the bench, and walked out.
I was in juvenile court, prosecuting a teen suspected of burglary, when the judge asked everyone to stand and state his or her name and role for the court reporter.
“Leah Rauch, deputy prosecutor,” I said.
“Linda Jones, probation officer.”
“Sam Clark, public defender.”
“John,” said the teen who was on trial. “I’m the one who stole the truck.”
As a potential juror in an assault-and-battery case, I was sitting in a courtroom, answering questions from both sides. The assistant district attorney asked such questions as: Had I ever been mugged? Did I know the victim or the defendant? The defense attorney took a different approach, however. “I see you are a teacher,” he said. “What do you teach?”
“English and theater,” I responded.
“Then I guess I better watch my grammar,” the defense attorney quipped.
“No,” I shot back. “You better watch your acting.”
When the laughter in the courtroom died down, I was excused from the case.
Did you hear about that decision the Supreme Court handed down without Justice Ginsburg?
It was ruthless.
Picking a Supreme Court Justice is a lot like crossing a river…
It all comes down to Roe v Wade
The US Justice Department were hellbent on taking IKEA to court a few years ago.
Unfortunately they had to walk away as they were having difficulties putting a case together.
What do you call a werewolf who has taken an interest in social justice?
Quotes about Fairness
We learned about honesty and integrity – that the truth matters… that you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules… and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square. Michelle Obama
There are vivid memories from my childhood – what we had to go through because of low wages and the conditions, basically because there was no union. I suppose, if I wanted to be fair, I could say that I’m trying to settle a personal score. I could dramatize it by saying that I want to bring social justice to farm workers. Cesar Chavez
The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made. Groucho Marx
The truth is that the vast majority of Americans are good, fair, and just, and they want their country to reflect those ideals. Kamala Harris
When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something. John Lewis