Shabbat Devarim: Optimism despite it all

August 4, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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The Book of Devarim, the last book of the Torah, is dominated by the personality of Moses even more than the previous three books.

It includes a complete re-statement and reformulation of the laws issued on Sinai and also restates the struggles Moses had, both with the people and with God. He is not sparing in his criticism of their repeated complaints and rebellions. As he gets to the end of the Book, he says that he knows that many of them will abandon the Covenant, even though it is always going to remain in force regardless of how badly they would continue to behave. Despite Moses’s realisation that human nature is fragile, he remains remarkably optimistic.

This week he says,  “I have commanded the judges of the people, that they should listen to you when there is disagreement, that they should judge justly between you and the stranger. Not to be biased in judgment or favour of the little person or the big one. Not to be frightened of other people, because justice is God’s”( Deuteronomy Chapter 1:16 & 17).

What does that mean, that Justice is God’s? Isn’t Justice our responsibility? But as humans, we more often than not get it wrong even if we think we are right. We need an external standard of morality.

This is a very important civil ethical principle in the Torah. Having a fair system of Justice requires giving a fair hearing to both sides, imperfect as it may be. This includes the stranger, the outsider too, and all members of society. The judges must be fair, following the law, not personal sentiment. And the way to achieve this is by accepting certain standards as immutable regardless of one’s preferences. This is the one principle that Moses emphasises more than any other civil legal principle and it is the one most often ignored.

But something seems missing here. One can understand not favouring the rich and the powerful. Why does the Torah here not say anything about the poor? After all, the Torah keeps repeating our obligations to the poor, the widow, and the orphan. But the Law is the Law regardless of one’s bank balance or power. If a poor person steals to feed his family, he has still stolen and must be found guilty. But when it comes to punishment, then the Judge has leeway to consider his difficult circumstances. And what is more, he will have a religious obligation to help that poor person and the family.

This is why the Torah uses two words together, Mishpat and TsedekMishpat is the law. It should be blind, like the Statue of Justice in front of the Supreme Court, with a blindfold over her face. But in addition, there is the moral and religious aspect, Tsedek, doing the right thing on a personal level where you should be biased in favour of helping. Doing the right thing, as in Buddhism, the skilful thing requires more than following the law. But without law, there is little chance of a society surviving.

We see too many examples of people doing what they claim is the right thing, yet murdering, oppressing others, using the law as a political tool, and betraying moral values. Religious hooligans, nationalist bullies, and leaders who fail to stand up and give a lead or last condemn evil. It is so depressing. Occasionally Moses despairs and gets frustrated and angry. But he never gives up.

From Moses, we learn not to give up, to persevere regardless of the mess around us.  Despite all his criticism of the Israelites, he does not lose hope, and neither should we. This imagery of Moses as the trustful shepherd, the Ra’ayh MeHemnah is why we regard him primarily as our teacher rather than as a messiah.

And that is the role of the Rabbi too. The Law of Torah is the Law and must be upheld. But one can still consider personal circumstances when applying it to individuals and individual cases. In his rabbinical role, he must treat everyone equally, regardless of wealth or power. No one should feel like a lesser person. Otherwise, the rabbi fails both on the grounds of Tsedek and Mishpat.

Surprisingly, in Henry Kissinger’s latest book about world leaders he admired, he says the common feature of the leaders he admired is a religious commitment, vision, and optimism.

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