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8.25.2018 Weekly Torah Portion

PostPosted: Fri Aug 25, 2017 4:48 pm
by RabbiMark
What do you pursue?

I want to start this week’s d’var torah off with a dedication -- To Rabbi Mark, for forcing me to immerse myself in our Torah, even when it’s the last thing I want to do. Thank you.

There are certain texts that are often used over and over again to send a particular message. These texts become so enmeshed within the social context of their use, that it is sometimes difficult for me to be able to understand them any other way. One of these “iconic” Jewish passages appears in this week’s parashah, Shoftim. Deuteronomy 16:20 famously exclaims, “Justice, Justice you shall pursue, so that you might thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving to you.” How often do Jewish organizations raise this passage up as proof for their social justice work? Yes, this verse implores us to go out and ensure that Justice is actually being served in the world, but it doesn’t quite tell us how. It invites us to the table, but it doesn’t teach us what to do once we sit down.

For that, we ought to take a closer look at the opening passages of our Torah portion. Deuteronomy 16:18 opens, “You shall appoint judges and law-enforcement over all your settlements…” At first glance, this makes sense: we ought to make sure that there are people wholly dedicated to carrying out and preserving justice if it is societal priority. However, the Hebrew phrase translated here as “you shall appoint” could also be translated as “give to yourself.” What’s the difference between an appointment and a gift? An appointment is a professional role that someone plays, but a gift is an object symbolic of a valued relationship. While we make and keep appointments, we treasure and cherish gifts. So in this radically different read of our verse, we are commanded, we are given the guidance and the opportunity to gift watchmen and judges over ourselves. But who are these watchmen? Who do we set to judge us? I know that feeling judged by others has served as an excuse for shame and further spiraling. However, when I take the step to ask people in my life who I trust and love, to watch over my actions and keep me in check, I am able to live a more effective life. When someone I truly trust gives me advice, no matter how much I don’t want to listen, I know that it comes from a place of love. All the more so when I empower said person to help me. We are being taught here to cherish those relationships that help us live our lives within just and righteous boundaries. It’s a gift to be reminded to do the right thing. This is what it means to truly live in relationship with one another.

But our verse doesn’t end there; it continues by reminding us that we are to offer ourselves this gift, “... Over all your settlements, which the Lord your God has given you....” We are told that we ought to give ourselves this sort of loving oversight in every place, in every moment. It’s not one settlement, it’s not only in a certain time or place that we are told to equip ourselves with loving overseers, rather we are told to engage in this sort of rigorous love, honesty, and judgment no matter where we find ourselves. What’s more is that this intense monitoring occurs within the larger context of gratitude. We are reminded by the text that everything we have, all of the good, comes from God. Imagine living a life in which we are able to gift ourselves true oversight out of a sense of gratitude. Gratitude not simply for whomsoever we appoint as our overseer, but also for the Ultimate Overseer. True gratitude and recognition for the good in our lives allows us to be able to hear and act upon whatever loving critique comes our way.

And loving critique is just what our trusted overseers are there to give us. The verse closes: “... And they shall judge the people with righteous-justice.” The gift we give ourselves by asking those closest to us to keep an eye on our actions is righteousness. It’s the ability to live a life of holiness and connection. It’s the opportunity to stop making the same old mistakes. It’s something to cherish.

So, taking all of this into account, how can I, how can we better understand that overused verse of “Justice, Justice, you shall pursue"? It is a gift to ourselves to live a life full of righteousness and connection. The torah is telling us that we need to pursue honesty with ourselves in each moment, each interaction, each place we find ourselves. It’s also telling us that we can’t do it alone. We need to empower our friends, family, and loved ones to help us, and in turn we need to serve them. In short, we need to engage ourselves in genuine relationships based on mutual growth and learning. In the end, what is the “Justice” that we ought to pursue? It’s the gift of loving care and real relationship that pushes us to be the best version of ourselves, every moment, every day.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Andy Markowitz