Shoftim -- Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

"Justice, justice shall you pursue." (Deuteronomy 16:20)

What does it take to pursue justice in an unjust world? I think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who commented that "human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals." Dr. King's message, as is so often the case, was inspired by a shared theology that emanated from the Hebrew Bible, and is plainly apparent in Parashat Shoftim.

When the judicial system is set up in Ancient Israel, attention is paid to appointing judges and law enforcement officers in every city. According to Mosaic Law, crimes must be investigated impartially and evidence thoroughly examined for there to be any hope of justice. Most importantly, there is the establishment of two credible witnesses required for any conviction and punishment. Prohibitions against idolatry and sorcery as well as laws governing the appointment of king are expounded, along with the guidelines for cities of asylum for the inadvertent murderer.

Alongside these laws, this week’s parsha also sets forth the rules of war, including exemptions from the military draft as well as the requirement to first offer peace before launching the offensive and attacking a city. Moreover, laws of war prohibit the wanton destruction of staples that are of value even though they nourish the enemy, for example, the prohibition of cutting down a fruit tree. The special ritual to be followed when the body of a person killed by an unknown perpetrator is found in a field – articulated as the law of Eglah Arufah – focuses again on the responsibility of both the most proximate community and its leaders for what could have been done to prevent this tragic loss of life.

Finally, we are reminded that every generation is responsible and entrusted with the task of interpreting the law to keep it dynamic as a living system of justice.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts an unsettled landscape with a road leading in the direction of a distant city. In fact, these hills are in Marin and the city skyline belongs to present-day San Francisco. Because of topographic similarities and the prominent role Jewish immigrants played in San Francisco's history, many Bay Area Jews view the city as our "American Jerusalem" and the region as our Promised Land. It's worth noting, however, that contrary to many claims, San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city is not a latter day iteration of Parashat Shoftim's city of refuge prescription. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Va'eira -- Exodus 6:2-9:35

Facebook_CoverDesign_VaeiraIn her renowned book, Memory and Oblivion: The Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2009), Israeli scholar Rachel Elior posits that history cannot be separated from the one who tells it. The winners write their version of the story empowered by their power and authority over the present; whereas the oppressed write their forgotten history with an eye towards future redemption.

Whether we are referring to the memory of Second Temple spiritual practice and community building that the Essenes preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls or to the spiritual activism of the dissenting Hebrew midwives in Egypt – neither of these religious cultures is relegated to oblivion. But what happens when fear is spoken to power rather than truth?

Pharaoh is a paradigmatic rabble-rouser, an agitator, firebrand, and provocateur. He sells himself on a platform of fear-mongering where he is the one entirely in control of the universe — he takes the place of God. Pharaoh is the symbol of demagoguery par excellence.

It is this demagoguery that Moses and Aaron must confront, demanding in the divine name,

Let my people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.

Pharaoh’s recalcitrance leads to the moment where Aaron’s staff transforms into a snake, swallowing up the surrounding staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers, followed by the famous plagues. Water to blood; swarms of frogs; lice infestations; hordes of beasts; pestilence; painful boils; all culminating in the seventh plague, a hail of fire and ice. Immune to the plagues, however, Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened. The man is deluded by the narcissistic belief that his initial platform of fear-mongering will assure him perennial rule.

Judaism asserts otherwise, not only by sanctioning dissent through righteous indignation, but by holding out the hope of a future informed by a messianic consciousness that fills the hearts and minds of all to bring on a new, redemptive reality for all sentient beings – even in our own day!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the ten plagues that afflicted the Egyptian people. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Shoftim -- Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

Web_Chen_9177The passion for truth behind the Torah’s pursuit of justice could not be stated any clearer than Moses' instruction: "Justice, justice shall you pursue." (Deuteronomy 16:20).

So, as we read in Parashat Shoftim about the primacy of justice, I think of philosopher John Rawls' definition of the concept in his work Law of Peoples (1999). Rawls is important as a thinker because he challenged philosophers to really begin to consider different models of global justice, eliciting questions like: Should global inequality be morally troubling? How might we lean towards a less unjust world?

When the judicial system is set up in Ancient Israel, attention is paid to appointing judges and law enforcement officers in every city. According to Mosaic Law, crimes must be investigated impartially and evidence thoroughly examined for there to be any hope of justice. Most importantly, there is the establishment of two credible witnesses required for any conviction and punishment. Prohibitions against idolatry and sorcery as well as laws governing the appointment of king are expounded, along with the guidelines for cities of asylum for the inadvertent murderer.

Alongside these laws, this week’s parsha also sets forth the rules of war, including exemptions from the military draft as well as the requirement to first offer peace before launching the offensive and attacking a city. Moreover, laws of war prohibit the wanton destruction of staples that are of value even though they nourish the enemy, for example, the prohibition of cutting down a fruit tree. The special ritual to be followed when the body of a person killed by an unknown perpetrator is found in a field – articulated as the law of Eglah Arufah – focuses again on the responsibility of both the most proximate community and its leaders for what could have been done to prevent this tragic loss of life. Finally, we are reminded that every generation is responsible and entrusted with the task of interpreting the law to keep it dynamic as a living system of justice.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

There is no Shabbat handout artwork this week. Christopher Orev Reiger is unplugging in the mountains.