A viable community needs a legal system with an agreed-upon framework of courts, judges, magistrates, laws, and a means of changing laws. That is what has been most shocking to me about the rise of Trumpism, its rejection of the validity of our legal and electoral processes. In our system, losers of elections are free to challenge the loss in the courts, even 60+ times, but they must accept the court’s decision. A loser of a very close presidential race may even decide not to challenge, for the good of the country; Nixon and Gore come to mind.
This is no longer the case. Acceptance (at least in public) of the lie that the election was “stolen” is required of Republicans. According to high-level Republican insiders, plans for overturning a Trump loss were in the works before the 2020 election even took place. A recent article by Tom Nichols in the Atlantic claims that rabid Trump supporters “now say that they believe that Trump broke the law—but that they don’t care. They see Trump and his crusade—their crusade against evil, the drama that gives their lives meaning—as more important than the law.”
How unfortunately relevant that is to this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, in which the Israelites are taught how to set up a fair, commonly accepted legal system in which no one is above the law.
Shoftim concerns the framework of the Israelites’ judicial system. All the people must study and respect the Law, not just because they will be punished if they don’t obey, but because they must each pursue justice. In verse 16:20, we read, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” “Justice, justice shall you (singular) pursue.” “Tzedek,” justice, includes not simply mechanical adherence to laws 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 Israelites are told to pursue justice “that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (16:20). They are also told to “sweep out evil from your midst,” a phrase used three times, concerning the worship of other gods or heavenly bodies (17:7), rejecting a judge’s final decision (17:12), and maliciously giving false testimony (19:19). Evil is the opposite of justice.
The repetition of “tzedek” in 16:20 has been subject to many interpretations over the millennia (surprise), as I wrote here in 2015. Several ideas from the 9th through 20th centuries are presented by Rabbi Jonathan Kremer in Justice, Pursue Justice . One I like is from the Sefat Emet (19th c.), whose reason for repetition is, “We have to keep pursuing justice, knowing that we have not yet attained it.”
Is justice a necessary consequence of obeying the law? Of course not. Awareness of when obedience leads to injustice is how 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, like the ancient Israelites, 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 readily leads to unsound decision-making with dangerous consequences. How many tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of lives were lost to COVID-19 because of denigration of facts and deliberate distortion of how serious the disease was?
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 (19:21), “… life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” War must 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 could infect others.
No one is above the law, not the priests, not the magistrates, not the Levites, not even a king. Furthermore, a king must not enrich himself though his office, nor have too many wives. He must know the Law and even write out two copies of it which he will keep with him and refer to. Knowing 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?
We are now about a week into the month of Elul. The shofar is sounded each weekday. Rosh Hashanah is fast approaching. Elul is a time for introspection, what is called cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. If you’d like an actual, accounting-type method to do this, see Soul Accounting in 5 Steps.
Shabbat shalom and zei gezunt,
(Note: Comments are based on 2018 comments but significantly revised.)
Jokes about Judges
- A judge was interviewing a woman regarding her pending divorce, and asked, “What are the grounds for your divorce?”
She replied, “About four acres and a nice little home in the middle of the property with a stream running by.”
“No,” he said, “I mean what is the foundation of this case?”
“It is made of concrete, brick and mortar, your honour” she responded.
“I mean,” he continued, “What are your relations like?”
“I have an aunt and uncle living here in town, and so do my husband’s parents.”
He said, “Do you have a real grudge?”
“No,” she replied, “We have a two-car carport and have never really needed one.”
“Please,” he tried again, “is there any infidelity in your marriage?”
“Yes, both my son and daughter have stereo sets. We don’t necessarily like the music, but the answer to your questions is yes.”
“Ma’am, does your husband ever beat you up?”
“Yes,” she responded, “about twice a week he gets up earlier than I do.”
Finally, in frustration, the judge asked, “Lady, why do you want a divorce?”
“Oh, I don’t want a divorce,” she replied. “I’ve never wanted a divorce. My husband does. He says he just can’t communicate with me!!
- How did the judge understand that the defendant is Scottish?
He admitted his kilt.
- Before you judge a person you should walk a mile in their shoes.
That way when you do judge them you’re a mile away with their shoes.
- If you want to be judgmental, you have to be a judge
Otherwise you’re just mental.
Quotes about the Pursuit of Justice
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” — Benjamin Franklin
“Quick reminder: Kindness and justice are not synonymous. Be kind. And advocate and work for justice. Lives depend on it.” — Bernice King
“We have a right to protest for what is right. That’s all we can do. There are people hurting, there are people suffering, so we have an obligation, a mandate, to do something.” — John Lewis
“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” — Reinhold Niebuhr
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” — Elie Wiesel
Draft Over Sixties Into The Military (excerpts)
lindapalmara | 18:28 Wed 29th Oct 2014 | Jokes
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!