Tag Archives: justice

What the Spies of Shlach ask us about ourselves

There is a TV commercial that distinguishes between simply monitoring and actively preventing identity theft. A violent bank robbery is in process. The monitor surveys the situation as the customers fall to the floor imploring this uniformed man to take action. He responds that he is merely a monitor; taking action is not his job. And yes indeed, there is a bank robbery underway.

shlachThe story of the spies in Parshat Shlach seems similar. Twelve men were selected and sent out to survey the land of Canaan and report back. They did what was asked and reported what they believed they saw. An insightful rabbi taught me that the answer to a question depends on the question you ask. It also depends on the nature of the respondent.

These were twelve men, “…one man each from his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst” (Num. 13:2). They were leaders within their respective clans, but were they capable as conquerors? The Hebrew word is Nasi, or Prince. They were princes of the individual tribes but not necessarily the top dog, or the General of the Army to use a military term. So were these spies conquerors or bureaucrats, men of action or fearful men of complacency and conservatism?

Had the idea of freedom and freedom’s responsibilities permeated this new Israelite society? It

Spies Scout Out the Land by Yoram Raanan

Spies Scout Out the Land by Yoram Raanan

seems not; for only two spies, Caleb and Joshua believed they could actually overcome their foes and possess the land. It is possible that a deliberate selection of strategists and warriors as the twelve spies would have yielded a unanimous joining of Caleb’s assessment that they could vanquish the Canaanites. However, the spies’ ability to sway the people indicated that the Israelite people were not yet ready to enter the Land and receive the promise and responsibilities that go with it.

We also, both individually and collectively, need to ask ourselves which are we? Are we agents of change like Caleb and Joshua, or agents of the status quo? Are we willing to find ways to achieve lofty goals or fearful of the risks and unwilling to reach for more hoping to preserve what we have? Often, trying to maintain the status quo is riskier than taking the chance to make something better.  Although we should always be grateful for what we have, when it comes to values such as human rights, peace, justice, equality, and security, we can always aspire to something greater. The question remains, Are we willing to take the risk?


A Nation of Laws is Tested


The situation in Israel seems to be deteriorating. Violence continues to escalate with the knife as a weapon of choice and fear is spreading as attacks come from seemingly out of nowhere. The natural and proper inclination is for law enforcement to become even more vigilant in order to prevent attacks and not only respond. But the police however must be judicious in how they protect the citizens of Israel.

Israel is a nation of laws. She prides herself on having a legal system similar to the American ideal founded on the principle of Equal Protection under the law. Now this system is being severely tested and Israel’s heart and soul are at risk. If Israel permits the profiling of people and the preemptive assault on individuals outside the prescribed due process of the legal system, then she loses and the terrorists win.   Israel cannot be democratic if she limits the application of law to select privileged classes, such as Jews, while others, such as Arabs, fall outside that sphere. A crack down on terrorism cannot come at the price of the foundational principles of Israel. A restoration of calm is necessary. The violence and barbaric nature of these attacks on civilians (police included) are certainly not random acts.  Israel must carefully consider how to properly respond.

Is this a mass response to “occupation” or are these individual actors perpetrating crimes as copycats? It certainly seems to not be the latter. Even if not expressly ordered by a central control, the attacks are coordinated. The first order is to restore calm. The second order is to cool the boiling over of the cauldron. Repression of an entire group, such as the Arabs of East Jerusalem, and sealing off of that portion of the city, will provide a temporary subduing of these attacks. A closer and deeper look at the grievances that encourage this violence as a legitimate response is required. Then deliberate steps must be taken to create a society that is fair and just.

I do not condone or legitimize the violence. Those that have perpetrated these attacks should be duly punished for breaking the laws of the State and of civilized society. Now it is up to the State and civilized society to solve the problems that have contributed to fomenting such deep discontent with a system of justice that speaks to everyone.

Shabbat Bereshit- In Beginning


Shabbat Bereshit, takes its name from the first word of Torah. Be-Reshit means “In Beginning.” In Beginning creation, God looked to fundamental principles upon which to build. We remember this as we read from the first Parasha of the Torah that takes its name from the first word and guides us forward in our journey.

 How interesting that we begin this journey observing Shabbat Bereshit juxtaposed against preparations around our country for a two-day Global Anti-Islam protest. A group of armed protesters will spew hatred for an entire religion and its billions of adherents because of the actions of a radical distortion of Islam by a barbarous hateful sect. Are these the principles upon which our country is founded?

 We can be a voice that rejects unbridled radical hatred. Our principles, our Beginning, as Jews and Americans command us to do better. Shabbat Bereshit compels us to look deep within ourselves and examine the core principles we will use in our creation building the world we would hope it should be.

 Catch up with the conversation on Twitter and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/1712773322284720

 Shabbat Shalom

A prayer for peace in Baltimore

We all pray for the family of Freddie Gray.  We mourn his tragic death and share the desire to see justice done for him.

We pray that peace return to the people and city of Baltimore.  The frustration is understandable.  But the violence and the destruction only serves itself.  Nothing is gained by these acts, and in fact, these very acts undermine the pursuit of justice.  We pray that cooler heads prevail and the desires of Mr. Gray’s family to respect his memory and stop the unrest immediately and calm is restored to the people of Baltimore.

Justice for Mr. Gray and his family must be the priority.  The crisis of confidence that exists between the people of Baltimore and its police must be resolved and the larger societal issues must be acknowledged and remedied.  Let us join together to make that happen.

Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu

Selma- It is our story

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma. As Americans and as Jews we are proud of this landmark achievement in our nation’s history and our part in it. Jewish Americans have been on the forefront of civil rights movement and we continue to champion civil rights and social justice for all. But the march in Selma is a seminal moment and we burst with pride, kvelling, at the sight of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel along side of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We are deeply moved that so many American Jews stood bravely and fought during the struggle, most notably including those who gave their lives for these ideals.

This was our story. We Jews had found our place in American society and we found our voice. The prophetic ideals that are a foundation of our Jewishness galvanized us to support the civil rights movement because we believed that until all were free, none were free.   So Jews stood proudly along side the African-American community demanding change.

However, the movie Selma does not tell this story. In fact, unless you looked carefully and unblinkingly during the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, you probably missed the man in the kippah off to the side.   The story told in Selma, is moving, but it is not a story that includes us. It is told from the perspective of the African-American community and glorifies the struggle that was theirs. Although the time is the same, the march is the same and the facts are the same, the stories however are different. But that is okay.

The tellers of this story needed to share their perspective, which did not have room for us. Selma was about empowering their heroes to assert themselves. It is not an unreasonable thing to look through a different lens and tell a different story that has meaning even though it is not the telling of the story we might choose. That does not detract from the contribution that Jewish leaders made, nor does it lessen the pride that we might feel for their participation. It only shows that there are particular and more universal stories that might be told about the same unfolding of events.

As we approach the Pesach Seder, this gives us an opportunity to re-examine the telling of our quintessential freedom narrative. What do we emphasize and what do we leave out? Many different versions of the Exodus story will be told this night, each of them valid, each of them part of the larger story. The recollection of events only remains meaningful when we can make the connection to those events in a way that speaks to us. Only then is it more than a recounting of events, but rather a moving story that evokes emotion and prompts us to action. We share at our Seder tables the hope that “Next year may we all be free,” but until that time, may our stories keep the dream alive.



Torah and the NFL- Nitzavim and Domestic Violence

This week’s Parasha opens with an extraordinary statement: “Atem nitzavim hayom culchem lifnay Adonai.” (Deut. 29:9) You are all standing here this day before the Eternal your God; the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers that you may enter the covenant, the Brit, of the Eternal your God and His oath which the Eternal your God is making with you this day. (Deut. 29:9-11)

Everyone from the highest of stature to the lowliest is included. We each and every one of us are to be included. The statement is actually twofold. It has an element that sometimes we overlook. Usually we focus on how each is obligated to enter into the covenant. But there is a form of reciprocity implied in the Brit. As each of us is obligated to enter into it, then by extension so too is each of us protected by it. No matter what your stature from the lowliest to the highest, we are all sheltered by the very same covenant of laws. No one is above the law and all are subject to the same law.

A nation of laws has been birthed for the first time in human history. This is one of the singularly great gifts of Judaism to humankind. It is the bedrock upon which we have built the United States of America.

And that is precisely why it is so deeply offensive and disturbing to witness the ongoing saga of domestic violence play out within the National Football League and within our culture. The Allstate Foundation and its affiliate, The Purple Purse, a center to combat domestic violence, published that an astounding 1 woman in 4 in this country will report experiencing domestic violence in their lifetimes. 1 in 4. Here in the United States of America. Furthermore, the number of victims that find they are unable to remove themselves from the cycle of violence is equally staggering. And sadly many victims come to believe that the cycle of violence is acceptable or even the norm and then tragically perpetuate the behavior.

 The stories of Ray Rice, the now former running back for the Baltimore Ravens, and Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings continues. Around the country many people are proclaiming that domestic violence simply is not acceptable. The simple truth is: A brute cannot assault a woman; child discipline cannot devolve into battery leaving physical injury. We do not permit domestic violence. Period— End of Story.

 But it is so much easier to turn a blind eye. After all, we are talking about Football. Football is more than a game; Football is our national quasi-religion. Its sacrament is offered by the grand church known as the National Football League in cathedrals around the country and live-cast into our homes.  Almost everyone loves to watch the game on Sunday, and on Monday and on Tuesday and on Wednesday and on Thursday. (If only we could get people to our services so often!). It is quite a spectacle and these players are great athletes.

 Some people ask, can’t we just kick back and enjoy the show? I mean cold cocking your fiancé is not the most admirable thing to do, but come on- have you watched this guy run? Many would rather watch the game rather and turn a blind eye to what happens off the field.

But the answer remains no. When we choose to turn a blind eye, we choose to condone domestic violence. We facilitate and even encourage this behavior because there are no consequences if we turn away. We cannot turn away. We are all responsible for one another.

 As public figures these athletes have a responsibility. And as people who make their money from our participation, we have a responsibility. These competitors embody the celebrity and the financial success that our country glorifies as well as their athleticism, the result of fierce training and discipline. We admire these qualities and aspire to be like those who possess them.

 These people are role models for our kids and for us as well. This is substantiated by the fact that the star performers all have major endorsement contracts to promote everything under the sun- from shoes to hats, to anti-fungal foot powder and almost anything else imaginable. It is only because of their influence on us that they hawk products. So whether or not they aspire to be, they are our role models and the endorsement deals create income streams and a lavish lifestyle.

 What I find distressing however is that the sponsors are reacting faster than the general public. Endorsement contracts are being reviewed and many pulled in response to the culture of unbridled violence that permeates Football. But the fan base, the American “amcha” if you will, remains by in large wildly devoted participants in the spectacle.

 What does it say about us when we encourage or condone or even tolerate this kind of behavior? What are the values that truly matter to us? How do we act as individuals, even when no one else is supposed to be looking? And what do we do in greater society as a whole? If we shirk our responsibilities, we create a culture that accepts and promotes Domestic Violence.

 Our Parasha this week admonishes us that we are united in our obligations. “You stand here today, all of you, before the Eternal your God,” And if we do not adhere to these principles, there will be exile and devastation in the land. Further, it is incumbent upon each of us. Each and every individual is responsible. And this is not an impossible task. “For the mitzvah I command you this day it is not beyond you, nor is it remote from you. “Lo Bashamayim Hi.” It is not in Heaven, it is not across the sea. Rather it is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart that you may do it.” (Deut. 30:14)

 All of us are called upon to be involved and to require good and decent behavior from ourselves and from others. So much of Torah is given to us for precisely this purpose. This is not some matter of politically correct civility; it is a foundation upon which our society is built.  A free and democratic system cannot tolerate the brute to rule. To borrow from Socrates rebuke of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, Justice is not the will of the stronger. The prophetic call to action of Isaiah, which we will read during the High Holidays and which we echo at every prayer service, admonishes us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless and provide for the widow and orphan. Society is strong only when it protects those unable to protect themselves. The seeds of this understanding are to be found here in Parasha Nitzavim.

 We are extraordinary and unique in that we are a nation of laws. This is not only a fundamental value of Judaism, but also a cornerstone of Western Culture and these United States. Without it, the very fabric of our society begins to fray and the domestic peace is threatened. It is both our inheritance and our legacy.

For this covenant extends beyond us to all of “those who are not here with us this day,” (Deut. v14) the future generations, our children and our children’s children.

 We are compelled therefore to demand better. The Eternal explains in Torah “I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil. I command you to love God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments.” God admonishes us to live with our eyes wide open.

 For if we do not live respecting the laws of decency and civility a cancer growing inside, threatens our society, one that will eventually kill, or to use the language of Nitzavim, “a root that produces hemlock and wormwood.” (Deut. 19:17)  We can put a stop to it now, by not tolerating such abusive behavior.

 We can act and we can have an effect. Truly it is close to us in our hearts and mouths. Nitzavim cautions that if someone thinks that he or she “can have peace even if I follow my heart’s desires,” “The Eternal will not forgive…but rather God’s zeal will fume against that person.” (Deut. 19:18) And so, each of us is obliged and challenged to act.

 It can start with something as simple as not watching the football game, sending an email to a sponsor or to the NFL demanding a change before agreeing to patronize one of the worlds most successful business enterprises, and actively supporting campaigns against domestic violence such as Purple Purse.

 The month of Elul is a time of reflection in preparation for the High Holidays; we look to where we have fallen short and how we might do better in the year to come. This is one place where we can all do better.

 ”Life and Death I have set before you, blessing and curse.” (Deut. 30:15) “Choose Life and live.”(Deut. 30:19)

Shabbat Shalom

Where do we go from here?

In the aftermath of four dead children, we need to carefully assess who we are, not who we believe ourselves to be.  It is hard to be self-critical, but it is critically important.  The tragedies of the four slain boys is deeply shocking and painful.   What it can tell us about ourselves is a step toward understanding those we currently consider adversaries on so many levels and how we might find a way to live together.  The horrible reality is that we have been sacrificing our children for way too long.  Our tradition compels us to continue to seek another way.  It will be hard and fraught with obstacles and disappointments.

Israel is a nation of laws.  Once, the aspiration was that Israel would be a nation like all other nations.  But in fact, we hold Israel to a higher standard of ethics and morality.  Although inevitably she will fall short of our ideal, it is the aspiration that makes her the land of hope for all Jews.  We support and love her and commit ourselves to striving to reach the ideal where all children might live in peace and security.  We have much work to do.  Let everyone use the tragedy that has befallen all of us to dedicate ourselves to the possibility of achieving peace someday