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Sermon: Parshat Shoftim, 9/6/19

09/08/2019 09:23:14 AM


Rabbi Charlie

Shabbat Shalom!

I don’t know if you know this or not, but we are living in strange times. I guess there’s lots of ways to look at that statement, but in particular, I was thinking about how we judge everything. We “power rank” sports teams, players, fast food places, junk food, Halloween costumes – everything. Many of us enjoy judging contestants on America’s Got Talent and voting our preferences. Star rankings are ubiquitous online – we can judge restaurants, books, movies, clothing, toys, camping gear, politicians… we even rank the weirdest things you can buy on Amazon (not a joke…

I guess that’s why I wanted to look closer at one of the most well-known lines from this week’s Torah portion. We read in Parshat Shoftim:

 “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes…Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof - Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you” (Deut 16:19-20).

In the ancient world, this was a guideline for judges who might oversee court cases. It happens all the time - a person is wronged so the scales of justice would be tipped in one direction. Pursuing tzedek – justice – would bring a sense of balance to the situation and therefore the world. That’s why giving tzedakah, which comes from the word tzedek, isn’t the same as giving charity. If a person needs help, it means that the scales have been tipped against them – think hurricane victims. Giving tzedakah – giving justice or righteousness– helps to rebalance the scales.

Today, the vast majority of us are not overseeing a court case or impacting the scales of justice – most of the time, we’re just giving our opinion. During this month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah), I want to encourage us to think about how we judge for a moment. It’s just our opinion, but bad reviews have an impact on sales. Good reviews that are false can be misleading. Some people allow our judgments to impact their self-esteem. Quick judgments – without all the facts – can lead to terrible consequences.

One quick example - Leif Olson was asked to resign from his job at the Department of Labor when Antisemitic Facebook posts from a few years ago were publicized by a news outlet. It turns out that when the full context of his posts were understood, it wasn’t that he was Antisemitic. Instead, he was using sarcasm to make fun of Antisemites. He’s supposed to be reinstated this week. (Whole story here:

This is not an isolated incident – we can be so quick to judge. And our judgments can and do have an impact, as our tradition explains.

One teaching from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 32b) focuses on the idea that sometimes what is just is not actually clear. In those cases, we need to compromise. It offers the following scenario:

Where there are two boats traveling on the river and they encounter each other, if both of them attempt to pass, both of them sink, as the river is not wide enough for both to pass. If they pass one after the other, both of them pass.”

There are far too many examples of boats lying on the bottom of the river because of pride or the absolute knowledge that my position was right – without consideration for an opposing view. It’s important to know that compromise has a place in balancing the scales of justice.

Another teaching focuses on the idea that as important as justice is, it’s not enough. We might want justice when we have been wronged – we do. But when we’re the ones who made the mistake… we often hope for compassion or mercy rather than strict justice. During the Yamim Noraim – our Days of Awe – we are certainly asking God to have mercy on us. In the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 12:15), our Rabbis argue that we need both. They envision God having the following conversation with God’s Self:

“So, said the Holy One: "If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be oppressive; [If I create the world] on the basis of judgment alone, how would the world be able to exist? I will create it with justice and mercy together and then, maybe, it will be able to stand!"

In a world that focuses so much on judging others, judging everything, it’s important to remember that we also need a sense of mercy and compassion. We need that sense of balance – in our lives and in our world. In the year ahead, it’s worthwhile to seek more of a balance between strict justice and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thu, August 6 2020 16 Av 5780