The world has gone mad! Normally, I love this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shoftim, which is filled with many of the laws and ideas that form the basis of the ethical Jewish tradition of which we are often so proud. We read this week’s Torah portion and think to ourselves it is good to be a Jew and I am proud of the contribution that our people has made to world religion and legal ethics. After all, Parshat Shoftim is the torah portion that brings us the ideas that we can only convict someone of a capitol offense with two witnesses, that we must offer terms of peace to an enemy before we attack, and that we must set aside cities of refuge to protect against acts of revenge. All of these wonderful laws usually make this Torah portion quite thrilling. The reader can sit back and admire the proud and honorable tradition of which she is a part.
But this week, the parsha reads differently, you cannot read all of the laws about war and revenge and justice without thinking of what the media calls “the bloodshed and violence in the Middle East.” That phrase has been used so many times in the newspapers and blogs that it almost means nothing. The use of these types of generic phrases relate to many of the more complex issues discussed in this week’s Torah portion. The conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon are filled with accidental and purposeful deaths, with unsanctioned revenge in place of justice, and with acts of war that have no regard for natural resources or innocent life.
When we read this week’s portion, it hits very close to home. As the Torah outlines its view of a just world, it seems like a mirror that is reflecting and mocking our current reality. It seems that all of the lofty ideals of the parsha have no connection to the crazy reality we live in. This disparity is not only depressing, it is morally exhausting.
So what do we do as Jews, as Hillel professionals and as human beings when we are confronted with such a problem and such a sense of powerlessness? This week’s Torah portion provides part of the answer when it challenges us with the famous words: “Justice, justice you shall pursue!” While the plain meaning of this verse seems simple, a great deal of scholarly and rabbinic ink has been spilled trying to understand why the word “justice” is repeated. The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter), however, takes issue with a different part of the phrase. He is more concerned with the word “pursue.” He explains that “There is no final depth or end to justice and truth, we always have to go deeper, seeking out the truth within truths… Thus the word emet (truth) contains the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet.”
The Sfat Emet's shift in emphasis reminds us that a just world is not something easily achieved and that this statement from this week’s Torah portion commands us to achieve a more modest goal. It is not incumbent upon us to complete a just world, only to pursue this goal to the best of our ability. This shift in emphasis challenges us not to simply observe the world as it is, or to allow ourselves to succumb to moral exhaustion or a sense of failure. According to the Sfat Emet’s interpretation, the obligation to pursue justice precedes the obligation to achieve it. While this may sound easy at first, the obligation to stay engaged in an ongoing process that does not have a specific achievable end in mind is actually quite difficult. We can never throw up our hands in frustration because of all of the failures of our society and the world around us. We must always “pursue,” even when the disparity between the world in which we envision and the world in which we live is great.
Now that we have entered the Hebrew month of Elul which leads into both the new school year and the Jewish High Holidays, we are reminded of our heavy responsibility. As Jews and as human beings, we must not fail to act in ways that improve our word; whether through social justice, political activism or simple acts of loving-kindness. As Hillel professionals, we have to continue to challenge ourselves and our students not to become apathetic because of the feeling that our contribution is too small in a world with so many problems. If we maintain the courage to continually pursue justice, we may be able to help the world a little and transform ourselves in the process. As the New Year approaches, I wish all of us the strength to make a difference and year filled with justice and joy.
Prepared by Rabbi Mike Uram, Associate Director/Rabbi Educator at Penn Hillel
Additional commentaries and text studies on Shoftim at MyJewishLearning.com.