Liberty and Justice For All- Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
It’s okay, in the eyes of Jewish tradition, to tell a lie. A little white lie for the sake of shalom- to maintain harmony in our relationships. “Look what I bought today- I got such a great price!” So what if you don’t love it- say something nice. “It’s lovely!” How do I know when it’s okay to say less than the truth? Dr. David Nyberg offers the perfect guidance- “Be untruthful to others as you would have others be untruthful to you.”
When is it NEVER okay to lie? In court. “Do not bear false witness” made it into the 10 commandments- it’s number 9. Why might that be? Because the administration of justice is a fundamental aspect of a functioning society. Being part of a community requires sacrifice on the part of the individual. Each of us gives up a little bit of our own autonomy to support the greater good. People who do not feel that their community operates on standards of justice and fairness become unwilling to sacrifice as the price of citizenship. Corruption in government is one of the first signs of a failing state. If there is not confidence that the law will be enforced in a just and equitable manner, people rapidly lose confidence and chaos can ensue.
Last week’s Torah portion began with the commandment, “Shoftim v’shotrim titen l’cha b’chol sh’a’recha- you must have judges and law enforcement everywhere that you dwell. . . and they must judge the people according to mishpat tzedek- the standard of righteousness, by a just law.” The text continues with the admonition not to judge unfairly and to be completely impartial, and concludes with the ringing cry, “Justice, justice shall you pursue- tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” (Deuteronomy 16:18- 20) Why is the word tzedek- justice- repeated? Some suggest- justice in the means, justice in the ends.
Or, it could refer to the fundamental importance of liberty and justice for all. The one mitzvah repeated more than any other in the Torah is the mandate for one law for the native and the stranger. Thirty-six times the Torah demands that equal justice for every member of society is non-negotiable. There can be no discrimination in how the law is applied. Every single person is formed in the image of God and Perhaps the word justice is repeated to emphasize its importance? Perhaps it is simply to encourage us to know that it is possible and a worthy goal?
Judaism is founded and sustained on a passion for justice. In the book of Genesis, chapter 12, God reaches out to appoint Avram, calling on him to be a blessing in the world. Six chapters later, Avram demonstrates how to be a blessing, crying out to God, “Shall not the judge of all the world deal justly?” Because of our history, we as Jews are especially sensitive to what it means to be the outsider and the vital call to be the voice of the disenfranchised. Shimon Peres famously suggested that the greatest gift of the Jewish people to the world was “dissatisfaction.” Our tradition demands that we recognize injustice, that we name it, that we work to bring about solutions when we become aware of injustice.
The prophet Micah asks, “What is it that God desires from us? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.”- (Micah 6:8) To do justice is God’s very first requirement.
The Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, are upon us. The holiest day of the year is Yom Kippur, also known as Yom ha-Din, the Day of Judgment, of accountability. As we imagine ourselves standing before the heavenly court, we are reminded of the fundamental importance of courts of law and standards of justice that are applied equally and impartially to every single member of our community. At this holy season and on this Yom ha-Din especially, we pray, in the words of the prophet Amos, that “Justice roll on like an ever flowing river, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24)