The title of this Dvar is a wink to my friend, the holy soul, Fabian Lijtmaer. His Dvar Torahs usually involve fire, Heavy Metal references, spirit animals, and the powers that exist within each element by the shefa (flow) of the Shechinah. So, naturally, when I thought about what might be a good title for a dvar all about justice I felt Metallica’s album “… And Justice For All” calling to me. Much love to the special soul that is Fabian.
Now to the words behind the title…
So much anxiety is brought on by thinking one won’t receive what is just. Of course, everyone’s view of their own justice looks different. But the idea of not receiving what you think you deserve, whether from a person or the universe creates a division and distancing in one’s relationships to others, to oneself, and even to life itself.
Justice brings peace, but only when judgment (gevurah) is balanced with the proper amount of mercy (chesed). When this is done right, it creates harmony (tiferet).
Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s last book is titled, Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue: A Life’s Work Fighting for a More Perfect Union, aptly pulling the words from this week’s parashah of Shoftim, which is Hebrew for ‘judges’. RGB, as many called her, was loved and celebrated for the work she did as a lawyer and activist in trying to create a broader notion of justice in America. A Jew herself, her work clearly drew from the fundamental Torah value we find in this pasuk:
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you.-1
Rashi says that the justice in this pasuk refers specifically to appointing worthy judges and explains that the institution of justice will give the Jewish nation the merit to stay alive and settle their Promised Land. As a people, we literally reached our promised land by virtue of our commitment to justice. But beyond the story of the Jews in the desert, this pasuk teaches how each of us can reach our own promised land and find personal redemption.
Every day we see and hear people fighting, building walls with their words, forming judgments toward other people that change the way they can (or can’t) exist together. But when people put aside their egos and speak peace into existence, choosing to extend humane compassion to each other, then they can reunite and coexist in peace. And it is only through peace that blessings flow. The Zohar teaches: “By (the way one handles one’s) anger, one can recognize who one is. If a person guards one’s soul at a moment of anger and does not allow it (one’s soul) to be torn from its place…this is a person who is as he should be…This is a complete person.”2 ‘Shalom’ means peace and ‘shalem’ means complete, so we are only complete when we are at peace. And peace only comes from mindful joy which chooses not to make space for anger.
As we reveal the Divine Light that is so often concealed in this world, in anticipation for the final redemption, we have to pursue justice and as much peace as we can. We have to choose to be slow to anger and quick to showing love and give of oneself. As it says in Isaiah, “Open up, O Gates, that a righteous nation may enter.”
One lesson to be learned from Ginsberg through her relationship with her colleague on the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, is how they exemplified putting aside their egos, building a personal relationship based on humane compassion, even when they disagreed vehemently in their views of justice.
The two Supreme Court justices’ views could not be more at odds, but their respect for each other remained intact for decades. Just hearing how they would disagree but talk through their disagreements is inspiring. When Ginsberg would hear Scalia, finding many faults in his views, she would still say, “he said it in an absolutely captivating way.” And when the tables were turned, Scalia would share, “What’s not to like?… Except her views on the law.”
When Ginsburg wrote the high court’s majority opinion striking down the Virginia Military Institute’s ban on admitting women, Scalia showed her a draft of his dissent. She recalls, “It was a zinger,” filled with “disdainful footnotes,” but that she “was glad to have the extra days to adjust the court’s opinion. My final draft was much improved, thanks to Justice Scalia’s searing criticism.”
The reason people praised their relationship so much is that it seems, as a people, we are moving further and further away from such a rapport. The Talmud (the elaborate explanation and commentary of the Mishnah), is based on opposing opinions and respect. For three centuries (c. 200 CE-500 CE) after the redaction and editing of the Mishna, later Sages, called Amoraim, and their students discussed and analyzed the Mishna. Their questions, discussions, and solutions comprise the Talmud.3
If you look at a page of the Talmud, on either side of the ancient arguments of the Amoraim, you find more opposing views, those of the Medieval commentators– Rashi on the right and Tosafos on the left. Judaism, from antiquity to now, is steeped in the teachings and the process of learning in the Talmud. Literally thousands and thousands of Jews (and lots of law students) are lovingly arguing with each other at this moment, using the Talmud as the catalyst for diving deeper into endless hypothetical scenarios connected to the morality of Jewish law and ritual. But, as a modern Western culture and people, we seem to be moving away from this embrace of respectful conflict, something Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff discuss in their book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.
Their description of this book hits the nail on the head of how surrounding oneself with people that share your views is detrimental to self growth:
The book is a timely investigation into the new “safety culture” on campus and the dangers it poses to free speech, mental health, education, and ultimately democracy. The generation now coming of age has been taught three Great Untruths: their feelings are always right; they should avoid pain and discomfort; and they should look for faults in others and not themselves. These three Great Untruths are part of a larger philosophy that sees young people as fragile creatures who must be protected and supervised by adults. But despite the good intentions of the adults who impart them, the Great Untruths are harming kids by teaching them the opposite of ancient wisdom and the opposite of modern psychological findings on grit, growth, and antifragility.4
In a TED talk that is just as relevant today as it was right after the Biden/Trump election, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks on ‘How we can face the future without fear, together’. He begins by saying, “We’ve seen divisive elections, divided societies and the growth of extremism — all fueled by anxiety and uncertainty. Is there something we can do, each of us, to be able to face the future without fear?” He goes on to say that “it’s the people not like us that make us grow” and shares three specific ways we can move from the politics of “me” to the politics of “all of us, together.”
The part that stuck out the most to me, especially keeping in mind the mission of Light of Infinite and Don’t Block Your Blessings is his simple suggestion, which he says, “might just change your life, and it might just help to begin to change the world. Do a search and replace operation on the text of your mind, and wherever you encounter the word “self,” substitute the word “other.” So instead of self-help, other-help; instead of self-esteem, other-esteem. And if you do that, you will begin to feel the power of what for me is one of the most moving sentences in all of religious literature: ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.’ We can face any future without fear so long as we know we will not face it alone. So for the sake of the future ‘you,’ together let us strengthen the future ‘us.’”
These lessons are all steeped in justice, peace, and focusing on others to instill justice and peace. The danger is when we focus on ourselves and our own needs to the detriment of others, which is always in reality a detriment to ourselves.
This is all to illustrate that, as we say in hip hop, “there’s rules to this (expletive).” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z” articulates that Devarim, as a whole, establishes the Jewish nation as a moral and just society: “Deuteronomy is in essence a programme for the creation of a moral society in which righteousness is the responsibility of all. The good society was to be, within the limits of the world as it was thirty-three centuries ago, an inclusive if not an entirely egalitarian one. Time and again we are told that society must embrace the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the Levite, people without independent status or means. It is to be one nation under God.”5
Many of us have heard the saying, “absolute power corrupts absolutely;” not all of us hear this phrase and have “Absolutely” by MF Doom play in their heads, but I often do. The way that the Torah instructs justice is in a way to ensure that no one individual can claim absolute power. The root of the statement by Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, was borrowed by William Pitt the Elder, British Prime Minister (1766 to 1778), who had expressed the idea differently. In 1770, Pitt said to the House of Lords, “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it”.
In this book of Devarim, we are reminded why the events that took place in the book of Shmot were necessary, the lessons learned as slaves in Egypt, as people without justice, peace or any sort of rights, instilled in us what it means to be “other”, to be strangers in a strange land. This experience creates the foundational empathy that informs the Torah’s vision of a good society based on collective responsibility.
As a massive fan of Justin Bieber‘s music, I can’t pretend that writing a dvar on justice doesn’t make his sixth studio album pop into my head. His intention with that album was his attempt to play “a small part” in discussing what justice looks like, in the year following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many more Black Americans, which fueled protests and widespread conversations about systemic racism. Bieber expressed that, “I know that I cannot simply solve injustice by making music, but I do know that if we all do our part by using our gifts to serve this planet, and each other, that we are that much closer to being united… I want to continue the conversation of what justice looks like so we can continue to heal.”
As we covered in parashat Devarim, Rebbe Nachman teaches that in order to experience a taste of the Or HaGanuz (the Hidden Light), one must elevate the aspect of fear to its source. Fear is elevated with the aspect of judgment as it’s written in Proverbs, “Through judgment, the King will establish the land”6 and land corresponds to fear, as it says in Tehillim, “The earth feared,”7 and later, “He conducts his affairs with judgment.”8 One must judge and evaluate all of their actions so that they can be elevated on high. In this world, we see that when judgment is enacted, others respect the righteousness of the law and fear it, awoken by their own desire to not fall victim to similar judgments.
Jumping earlier into Tehillim and further into the lesson of Azamra, it says, “And yet, in a little bit, the sinner is gone; you will contemplate his place, but he will not be there.”9. This correlates to the famous lesson in Pirkei Avot: “Find yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person favorably.”10 This practice of rectifying judgment is done by finding the good points in yourself. When you do that, you take away the “bad” from yourself and others, and when that becomes second nature, you can reach a level where you don’t see bad. This is what it means when it says in Tehillim that “the sinner is gone”, as you have brought yourself and the other to a place of kulo tov (all good).
A world without justice is a fractured world, a world with justice and peace as its focus is a world with revealed blessings, a complete world. As mentioned above, ‘Shalom’ means peace and ‘shalem’ means complete, so we are only complete when we are at peace. As the saying is so often shouted, “No Justice, No Peace.”
I pray for the revelation of the final redemption, a time of kulo Shabbat (complete Shabbat). Our Sages refer to that time as the Messianic era, when darkness will fully be transformed to light, when justice and peace will be fully realized.
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