Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Shoftim
My late father used to say, “The road to Hell was paved with the best of intentions.” There are times we want to do something huge, but the way in which we go about doing it creates more problems than it solves. Comically, I always think of the kids in the kitchen making “Mother’s Day Breakfast.” They call mom to breakfast, and she walks in to see the disaster zone that used to be called her kitchen. Tragically, I think of the Good Samaritan who stops to help someone in seeming trouble on the side of the road, only to get mugged in a set-up. With the best of intentions, sometimes things go all wrong.
For hundreds of years, our nation has experienced a battle for equality between those who are privileged and those who are outside of the privilege. One is privileged when he/she lives in a world so oriented to their way of life / religion / gender / etc that they have no ability to see the plight of those outside of that “norm.” When we speak of “White Privilege,” “Christian Privilege,” ” Male Privilege,” or any other “privilege,” we speak of a majority population who has no experience or insight into the ways in which they take their rights for granted. Privilege does not presume that people are bad, only that they are ignorant beyond their own experiences in the world. They may mean well, their lives may be dedicated to being caring people, but the plight of the “other” is outside of their frame of reference … until someone or something helps expand their vision.
Hundreds of years have passed as Americans worked to mold this country into a “Just Society.” Despite these great efforts, we are still fighting, and the most often cited mandate for this fight happens in this week’s Torah portion.
“Tzedek, tzedek, tirdoff:” one of the most famous lines from all scripture. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misunderstood lines in all of scripture. We commonly translate the text as, “Justice, Justice, You must pursue (it).” Justice is the rule of law. The scales of justice hang in every courthouse in the country. Justice is really nothing more than the best answer we have for any given legal situation, at any given point in time. Justice allowed slave ownership. The highest “Court of Justice” in the land affirmed it on a number of occasions … until it did not. Then, a new standard of “Justice” was imposed. We are not seeking justice; we have it. With the best of intentions we have fought a system of inequality arguing that the law needs to change. Laws change every day. There are a host of laws supporting equality. People had to fight and suffer for the enactment of these laws. After the laws changed, hearts did not, and the fight and suffering that went into bringing about change, the best of intentions, failed. They have, however, served to incite animosity and degradation as people who always believed themselves to be good people felt slapped in the face with lawsuits and protests. Their response was as painful. What needs to change is the heart. What we need is righteousness, the better definition of “Tzedek.” We must pursue righteousness (the best moral answer available to us). Sometimes, following the law may be “just,” but it is not righteous. Torah teaches us that an eye for an eye will serve only to leave us all blind. Dr. King taught that if we want to end the cycle of degradation that breeds hate, the only answer is love. We must example the attitude we seek to establish. Our own tradition teaches that there is nothing more sacred than turning an enemy into a friend. Angry protests have never accomplished the creation of relationships between opposing parties.
Monday, August 17, I joined in the N.A.A.C.P. Journey for Justice; an amazing event on so many levels. As much conversation as we shared, we kept returning to the topic of the laws affirmed by government and our purveyor of justice (the courts) still allowed for discrimination and disparate treatment of minorities and women. As we walked across the Georgia countryside, we became more focused on pursuing righteousness, holding our nation’s leaders to a higher standard than the law. We marched to remind America that the Constitution of this land declared the rights to equality in opportunity and security are “inalienable.” While the law is more egalitarian than it used to be, our system of justice still has a long way to go before we begin to govern in righteousness. My 19.5 miles calling our nation’s attention to more righteous answers did not change the world, but our voices over 860 miles can. We just have to be willing to engage people who want to engage us … and commit to growing from the experience.
Rabbi Marc A. Kline