Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Devarim

As people of faith, we believe that God calls us to witness all that happens in our world. Witnessing is an active verb. I am not sure that some parts of the religious world use the word correctly when they say that they are going to witness something to or for you, but the term certainly transcends simply “hearing.” Being a witness implies that one really paid attention to the details and nuances of events or circumstances in which one finds one’s self. The purpose of being a witness is to then take the experience and do something with it. In the case of social justice, one must pay attention to the injustices in the world and be so moved by what he/she sees, that he/she takes action to heal some part of the broken system. Hence our commitment to tzedakah – righteousness.

Many translate tzedakah as charity, but it is more than that. Later in the book of Deuteronomy, we will meet the root of this word in the famous phrase, “Tzedek tzedek tirdoff.” Most people translate this phrase to mean, “Justice, Justice you shall pursue it. “Charity” is a voluntary act of compassion, the root word tzedek demands greater attention and commitment. As a recovering lawyer, I look at the scales of justice and know that a great many court decisions become law, and the standard of law is justice. I also know that many of these decisions are morally repugnant. Justice is the status quo of the current best answer at law, but we seek a higher standard. We seek the most righteous of answers. We seek solutions to problems, not just the next temporal band-aid. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdoff.” 


The prophets stared in the face of the judges and elders and screamed that there was a higher standard than the current status of the law. Slavery was at one time “Just” in America. Paying women less than men is “Just.” Treating people differently at law and equity because of their gender identification is “Just.” None of these judicial and legislative laws, though currently the standard of justice, are righteous.


From this week’s Torah portion, we get another affirmation that there is more at stake than the status quo. Deuteronomy opens Moses’ adjuration to Israel that they had to strive to always evolve in faith and communal dignity. Moses instructs the people, “Shamo’a bein acheichem ushefat’tem tzedek bein ish uvein achiv uvein geiro”-“Hear out your fellow human beings, and judge with righteousness between any person and a fellow Israelite, or any Israelite and a stranger.” (Deut. 1: 16, NJPS translation)


The first word of the sentence (shamo’a) sounds a lot like the command to listen, “shema.” They share the same root, but even as shema is a command to listen, shamo’a means to listen emphatically, to pay “uber” attention … to witness. Paying attention is better than ignoring the world around one’s self, but it takes bearing witness to be able to internalize what one observes well enough to understand its blessings and challenges. One cannot adequately celebrate or effect change where one does not understand what is at stake.


We live in an age where too many people tune everyone else out. Even those who pay attention adopt agendas as to what they will or will not hear. I know lots of “well informed” people who listen to only one voice in any dispute, and who ignore any voice with whom they disagree. We cannot find tzedakah – righteous solutions to problems when we willfully choose to ignore available data. When we listen intently enough to everyone to bear witness, we find that the most vociferous partisan arguments stand on the fewest egalitarian facts. If we want to change the world, we have to bear witness to each other and each other’s thoughts and needs. If we can divorce ourselves from the prejudices that keep us from being the egalitarian witness, we will find ourselves making holistic and healing decisions for our future. We will hear the kol d’mama – God’s still small voice transcend the partisanship with which we have burdened God. We will find ourselves in greater consensus as to what is right and righteous. Yes, it is easier said than done, but if we never take the first shot, we have zero chance at scoring any points. Let’s all give greater effort to impose a little less and hear a little more. Shabbat Shalom.