Bereshit and Justice

 In Contemporary Life, Torah

Bereshit and Justice

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell


And so it begins again.  This week, Parshat Bereshit, we have the opportunity to open our Torah scroll to the very beginning and take it from the top.  The creation of the world.  The almost immediate expulsion from paradise.  The flood, Abraham and Sarah, enslavement and freedom, wandering, entering the land.  Wow!  Each year we return to the text, ready to view these familiar stories with a new perspective.  What will this year bring?

I’m thinking about this Sunday, when Temple Chai will have the honor of hosting the Zeichick Family Lecture, with special guest Rabbi David Saperstein.  Not only is he a rabbi, but also a lawyer, who served as the president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.  For forty years he directed the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, and was then appointed as the US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom by President Obama.

I’m sure you’ll hear more of his impressive resume on Sunday.  What I am thinking about on this Shabbat is his message, and how it connects with our Torah reading.  We are familiar with the verse (Deuteronomy 16:20), “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”  If I had to narrow Jewish values down to the most primary focus, I would say that justice is it.  Society cannot endure without justice.  One might say, “freedom and justice for all!”

Even as we enter into Shabbat, Shabbat Shalom, hoping for a moment of peace and renewal, we enter with words reflecting the primacy of justice.  The psalm for Tuesday, Psalm 97 (vs. 2)- “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne.”  The psalm for Thursday, Psalm 99 (vs. 4)-  “God loves justice. . . and brings justice to our community.”  (paraphrase) To name just a few references.  Justice doesn’t rest on Shabbat.  Justice can and must endure.

Justice is embedded in the opening verses of this week’s parsha.  Human beings, we learn, are created in God’s image.  (Gn. 1:26).  Every single one of us.  Equal from the very beginning.  The Talmud teaches us the uniqueness and value of each individual, reminding us that if we destroy one person, it is as if we destroyed the whole world.  (Sanhedrin 4:5)  Ron and I had the privilege of visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, where we saw, inscribed, these stirring words from the Gettysburgh Address, capturing the theme of our Torah reading, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Writing in his book, The Genesis of Justice, Alan Dershowitz notes that it is “The Bible that empowered (him) to pursue justice.”  (p. 6)  And, it is Jewish tradition, notably Abraham’s challenge to God, “Should not the judge of all the earth do justly?”, (Gn. 18:25) that has made the pursuit of justice such a powerful and proud Jewish legacy.

In the ancient world, the world in which the Torah emerged, it was kings who wielded power and who were considered to be divine beings.  What a radical notion this idea must have been, that EVERY person reflects the image of God.  No race, no ethnic group, no culture or religious faith is better than another.  When I meet with conversion students, I take great pride in sharing the Jewish teaching that you don’t have to be Jewish in order to earn a place in heaven, that “the righteous of all faiths have a share in the world to come.”  (BT Sanhedrin 105a)

Sadly, by the end of the parsha, the world has become filled with violence, leading to the flood in the story of Noah.  We are left wondering how we will use this blessing, this gift, of being formed in the image of God.  Will we be a blessing or a curse?  Will we advocate for the inherent dignity of each and every person.

With the first murder in the Torah, Cain asks the Holy One, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  (Gn. 4:9)  The answer is, very simply, yes.  And the rest of the Torah explains our commitment to support each other and to be forces and advocates for justice.

As Reform Jews, we can take so much pride in our commitment to “freedom and justice for all,” to the proposition that we are all created equal,   and to the holy work of the Religious Action Center.  The RAC, as it is known, played a critical role in movements for civil rights in the 60’s, for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights in the 70’s and 80’s, and support for interfaith dialogue through the years.  In the 21st century, the RAC has played a leadership role in marriage equality, justice reform, and immigration issues.  Social justice advocacy and tikkun olam are at its core.  I hope you will join us on Sunday to learn more from our guest, Rabbi David Saperstein.

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