Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Shof’tim

It would be too easy to go on a full-page political rant this week. Our Torah portion screams, “Justice, justice; you shall pursue it!” The text also reminds us to allow only unbiased judges on the bench. Political appointees or denials are simply unjust. The amount of fodder for spewing on over the last 40 years is almost too tempting to pass on, but recounting the impact of the abuses will serve only to throw this commentary into a political debate. We have proper times and places for that debate. Certainly, one person’s Torah is another person’s partisanship. I believe heart and soul that Torah tells us to commit ourselves to everyone’s healing and well-being (meaning we have to protect the immigrants, provide health, etc.). At the same time, other people believe the same message, but interpret it as a call to a different standard of understanding of what “healing and well-being” look like.

Today, however, I feel differently moved and charged. I think that Justice needs to speak to a more profoundly fundamental concept than what plays out in current conversations. We have to go back to the truth that “Justice is never – Just Us.” This truth plays out in many ways. We have all heard the aphorisms. “If one experiences oppression, none are free.” “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” “If you take one life, it is as though you have killed the world.” Each statement reminds us that it can never be only about some of us. No person’s dignity is expendable.

What about the dignity of our adversary in any given dispute? If we are deeply concerned with justice, then we cannot diminish people who think differently than we do. Someone genuinely believing that we do not have the assets or bandwidth to take care of everyone has solid backing, as well. There is a teaching in Talmud that if lost in the desert, and there is water only enough for one, then one must survive even as the other must then die. To share the water would only kill both. I can point to all the teachings that tell us to put the stranger’s needs above our own (or we sin before God), but no great tradition is monolithic. Our tradition thrives on the dichotomy and controversy. Our goal is not to defeat the other. Rather, our goal is synergy – a better answer than either of our current places in thought. We only grow through healthy and respectful debate.

Indeed, we need to hold each other to the truth – not the news. We need to remember how nuanced truth can be. There are always many truths to any situation – each rooted in the perspectives that make each of us unique.

We need to keep each other from deflecting. If we are to discuss an idea, then we need to stay on topic – even if it becomes challenging. A healthy conversation should mandate that in hearing each other, we also think and rethink what we think we know about the given subject. If our spirits remain unmoved, even if only in respect for the other person’s heart, then it is our hearts that hardened as Pharaoh’s did with Moses.

Being correct is not always the ultimate answer. Being kind and respectful outweigh “correct” most every time. If one is correct and respectful – one has a chance of changing hearts and minds. If one is correct and acts in only an ugly manner, no one will listen. I once refereed an ongoing fight between siblings. One would complain to me how mean and hateful the other was. It was unfair. I responded, “If only one of you is screaming, people will think ill of the one and have compassion for you. If you are both screaming, people will dismiss you both.

We can hold each other accountable for honesty and thoughtfulness, but it cannot be “Justice” if we have to win at the expense of another person’s dignity. And, when one side or the other proves itself more worthy, we cannot take advantage of the opportunity to rub salt in open wounds or belittle those previously misinformed. When we stoop to that behavior, we cannot claim to be acting Godly. Shabbat Shalom.