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In Melbourne Shabbat begins Fri 10 Apr 2020 05:41 PM and ends Sat 11 Apr 2020 06:40 PM

Kew Shule Parashat Shoftim

ל' אב ה' אלפים תשע"א


Word of Torah for Parshat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) In every educational endeavour, the learner is being prepared for the type of thinking he or she will need to tackle - problems that will come up. This is known as relevance. Even the mathematics that one will never use in the future directly is a discipline in thinking logically and methodically. It is not just a rite of passage that we learn mathematics and science. It is a relevant modality of thinking that will make us dispassionate and analytical in our observations about the world; this modality will serve us in certain situations. This means we need to have at our fingertips a variety of modalities of viewing the world that we have worked to develop and then be able to catagorise situations that come up, pulling from our tool box the correct modality or mixture of modalities of thought in order to fit the case and respond accordingly.

Parshat Shoftim is packed with relevance even when, on the surface, it is addressing situations which might never come up in our own lives. The Parasha is seeking to develop a specialised modality of thought that it tacitly considers to be under-developed in the learner, us---thinking for being fair, upright and unbending in one's insistence on building a just world.

We can ask, given our training from Parshat Shoftim: what is the right position to take on issues of social justice and when should we go out of our comfort zone when an issue of social justice is one that we have determined is crying out for us to respond as humane people, especially due to our training and experience as Jews?

This brings us quickly into the political arena where neither political party may be doing the right thing but where there are big differences in the rhetoric and the thinking regarding issues such as asylum seekers and climate change. To me it seems pretty clear that the Parasha would want us to stand up for the environment that cannot protect itself and for asylum seekers with whom we can very much relate, given our recent history.

This training is also given to us so that we will avoid easy ways out of our obligation. The word Tzedek, justice, takes us back to Abraham and Chapter 18 in the Book of Genesis. Abraham was arguing against God on behalf of a city of people who God told him were evil. Abraham debated with God and asked in effect, is absolutely everyone evil or just a majority? Could anyone be saved? God basically sent an angel to save Lot and his family, the only decent people left in the city. Abraham cared about the stranger to such a degree! Being a Tzadik is about never being complacent when it comes to justice and never letting others be complacent - even God, as it were. This is why Abraham is the prototype for the title "righteous."

This is what the Parasha means by "Justice, justice shall you pursue." (Deuteronomy 16:20)

The word "justice" is repeated to show that there will be counter-arguments that cloud the picture concerning justice. There are two voices in my head arguing back and forth. There are arguments from the world of Utilitarianism. This form of Justice we know from Parshat Mishpatim in the book of Exodus, in which the civil law code was laid down. It is equally wrong and it makes no sense to steal since if everyone did that wrong thing, society would clearly fall apart.

But when doing what is right requires making sacrifices that will seem all too onerous in the short term, the utilitarian cries, "No harm, no foul."  Even on utilitarian grounds, one can argue that taking care of the environment is a good call in the long run. Asylum seekers, however, would fare less well in a purely utilitarian model. We can say that if every refugee would come to Australia, the country would not be able to cope with taking them all in.  Therefore, we are commanded to go beyond a utilitarian form of ethics. With the second utterance of "Tzedek," we are entering into the world of Deontological Justice wherein which, if something is wrong and if I must lose something in the short term in trying to correct that wrong, I will break through into that second justice and overcome my temptation to look away. I must identify with that person and say: what if that person was my kin or me? Justice absent for one means we are choosing to compromise on an unjust world for the sake of our own backyard.

Can we say it was different when it was we who were refugees? Are there really the numbers of refugees that would sink our own boat? When Israel takes in strangers from all over the world, they are cared for and integrated aggressively and in a short time; because of national service, they are patriotic and hard‑working citizens.  We can say in this sense, to the degree to which this is still true of the State of Israel, she has done the training on Parshat Shoftim. It comes in handy everywhere and at every time. We are being taught the lessons of this Parasha at the exact point of need.

About the matter of the environment, Parshat Shoftim reads:

When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for they are food producing, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man that can move away when being besieged? Only the trees which you know have no food product - them you may destroy as needed in order to build protective fortifications against the city that makes war with you until it falls.  Deuteronomy 20:19-20

About the responsibility to preserve every single person's life, the Parasha includes the following ceremony:

If one be found slain in the land which the Lord your God gives you to possess, a human being found lying in the field and no one know who struck him. All the elders must come there from the surrounding cities. A public measurement is taken to determine which city was the nearest one to the slain person; the elders of that city must take a heifer and slay it prematurely, as this person's life was taken prematurely. The elders of the city wash their hands over the heifer and make a statement that their hands had personally not shed the blood and their eyes had not witnessed this crime. Forgive, Oh L-rd ,your people Israel, whom you have redeemed and suffer not the innocent blood to remain in the midst of Your people Israel. And the blood shall be forgiven them.  Deuteronomy 21:1-8

The Halachic commentary to the book of Deuteronomy, the Sifri, warns us not to take the elders' disavowal of the murder literally. No one contemplated the idea that the elders from that city had personally killed the untraced murder victim:

"The avowal is to say that the person had not come to them hungry and they failed to feed him. He did not come to us friendless, and we failed to befriend him." Hertz Commentary, page 835

We can see here that our responsibility goes much further than merely the absence of committing a crime. We are meant to work systemically and actively to promote the safety and well being of those people who are only very loosely related to us by virtue of our relationship through Adam, our mutual father. The closer a person is to us, the Torah is teaching us, the stronger our tie of obligation. This person is out there; we cannot look away and pretend we don't know and don't see.

 Rabbanit Tzipi Boroda

! שבת שלום ומבורך


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