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Town Hall Meeting

Our Torah portion this week, Mishpatim, sets forth a framework of laws whose purpose it was to create a fair and just society, within which everyone could live a good life, in security and peace. It is perhaps with a note of irony that we are reading this portion during this week, when, virtually all over our country, Americans have been gathering in auditoriums, houses of worship, colleges and meeting halls of all kinds, for “town hall” meetings with their Senators and Congressional Representatives, to demand that America live up to the American dream of a fair and just society for all. On Wednesday evening, Union Temple was filled to the gills with people of all racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, to hear from Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, and a panel of experts on the environment, immigration law, the ACLU, health care, and Planned Parenthood, for a reaffirmation of our democratic values as Americans, and how to go forward during this oppressive administration, to make sure that we are protected and that our values are promulgated. We were delighted to be able to offer our congregation as a venue for this important gathering.

I was honored to be asked by Representative Clarke to deliver the invocation.  These were my remarks:

“The portion of the Torah that the entire Jewish world is reading during this week includes one of the foundational precepts of our entire tradition: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” No fewer than thirty-six times does the Torah repeat this admonition: “You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

For Jews, it is out of our historical experience of bondage, of degradation, of being outsiders, that we are commanded to stand up, now as a free people in this world, and do better; to pursue justice, to create a society of fairness, to treat other people with compassion and respect, no matter what they look like, whom they love, or where they come from. And I needn’t remind you, my friends, that if there is one people who should know the feelings of the stranger, the outsider, the disadvantaged, it is we, the Jews – the driven of the earth. And thus it is we who are charged with the responsibility to do better. And we believe that not only we, but every human being, regardless of our religious beliefs or affiliations, regardless of our station in life; that every one of us has the capacity to do better. It is a fundamental optimism with which we approach our responsibilities in this world.

We are here this evening – all of us, of different backgrounds and traditions – we are here out of our belief that our country has the capacity to do better; to create a more just and compassionate society. This is our mission – to create a society of fairness and equality, of kindness and compassion, of justice, and of peace.

Yet above all, we understand that the responsibility of bringing our mission to fruition rests squarely upon our shoulders. And so we stand this evening, shoulder to shoulder, together with Congresswoman Clarke, and all her of colleagues – to realize the full promise of the American dream. May we go forward with courage, and strength, as we walk together in peace.”

The End of One Year

2017Our Torah portion begins, Vayehi miketz sh’natayim yamim. . . After two years’ time. . . . The two years are those that presumably have passed since the end of last week’s parashah, as the cupbearer of the Egyptian court had told his dream to Joseph, and Joseph interpreted it with astounding accuracy. This time, “after two years’ time,” it is Pharaoh himself who is dreaming. The cupbearer tells him of Joseph’s astonishing powers of dream interpretation. Pharaoh orders Joseph’s release from the dungeon, and thus begins Joseph’s rise to power.

It is fortuitous that we are talking about miketz sh’natayim yamim, the end of two years, now at the end of this year of 2016. While in actual time it has only been one year, it has felt like one of the longest years in history. Donald Trump steamrolling over sixteen opponents in the Republican primaries; the often irritating rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; the bruising, often outrageous presidential campaign; the unforgettable election night that most of us would prefer to forget; the devastating massacre at Pulse Night Club in Orlando; the police shootings of all too many African American young men, and likewise, the targeted shootings of all too many police officers; Brexit; Nice; Berlin; natural disasters; Russian hacking; escalated tensions between the US and Israel – close friends who are clearly rather irritated with each other at this moment – and the deaths of all too many celebrities whom we felt like we knew personally – from Mohammed Ali, to Gene Wilder, to Prince, to John Glenn, to Eli Wiesel, to Shimon Peres, and just this week, not only Carrie Fisher, but her mother Debbie Reynolds as well, among many more.

Vayehi miketz sh’natayim yamim. . . . This may have been one year that felt not even like “two years’ time,” but more like twenty. I suspect we won’t be sorry to bid farewell to 2016. But 2017, of course, will present us with many challenges. While we may still be feeling down in the dumps, we will have to redirect our energies into mobilizing for what are sure to be struggles ahead.

This Torah portion, Miketz, is almost always read during the Festival of Chanukah. While it is actually just a calendrical coincidence, perhaps we might find some hope in the metaphor of light, which is such a prominent feature of our Festival of Lights. The last night of Chanukah this year is also the last night of 2016. But the festival reminds us of the strength and eternality of the Jewish People, and of the values we derive from our tradition – the values of justice, and fairness, of compassion and the pursuit of peace, and the teaching of fundamental respect for the dignity of all human beings.

So, Miketz HaShanah HaZot – at the end of this year – I wish all of you in the coming year renewed strength, and fortitude, hope and peace.

Justice, Justice

Constitution_of_the_United_States_page_1-c-eOur Torah portion this week, Tetzaveh, deals with the construction and decoration of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, and the clothing and responsibilities of the Kohanim – the Priests – as divine intermediaries in the sacrificial rites.

This being said, I ask for a bit of indulgence for this particular week in referencing a completely different section of the Torah, because it has been echoing rather loudly since the extraordinary events of this past weekend. That is the portion in Deuteronomy known as Shofetim – Judges – which we usually read in its schedule at the end of the summer, as we are anticipating the Days of Awe.

Deut 16: (18) You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. (19) You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. (20) Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.

On Saturday afternoon, before the Last Rites of the Church were even administered to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, z”l, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a public statement saying that the Senate should not confirm a replacement for Justice Scalia until after the 2016 election. This was an act of direct defiance and rejection of President Obama’s authority as President, and in fact, his responsibility according to the Constitution that he swore to “protect, preserve and defend.” It was also a direct rebuke of the prescribed practice of giving serious consideration to each nominee on his or her individual merits.

The section in Deuteronomy that I quoted focuses on the establishment of government and domains of authority. The primary function of the civil government is adjudication. The Torah sets forth basic rules of adjudication, with the goal of achieving justice in the society. There are rules of judicial procedure, bringing evidence, capital punishment and lesser forms of punishment, the establishment of an appellate system, and provisions for each succeeding generation’s ability to interpret and reinterpret Torah law.

While United States law is not governed by Torah law, of course, nevertheless we can see forerunners of certain fundamentals of American governmental organization in the Torah, set forth with the goal of establishing justice in society. The Torah actually divides the civil sphere into three domains of governance, called ketarim – crowns. These were: Keter Torah – the Crown of Torah, Keter Kehunah – the Crown of Priesthood, and Keter Malkhut, the Crown of Kingship. As I said, they are not the same as our American notion of separation of powers into the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Nevertheless, the intent in Ancient Israel was to prevent any one entity from overtaking the entire society through the concentration and abuse of power.

While this is far from a comprehensive study of either Torah law or American law, it is clear that both systems were designed with the intent of preventing the concentration of power into a single human authority through the separation of powers structure. A number of legal scholars and public figures have repeated numerous times in the past few days that the United States Constitution clearly and undeniably states that when a vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court, the President is obligated to put forth a nominee to the Congress, and the Congress is obligated to vet that nominee to the ultimate end of either accepting or rejecting him/her. We all understand what is at stake in the quagmire that Senator McConnell and his colleagues are seeking to create. We also know that this is contrary to the very American system of justice that our Constitution aspires to establish. Every effort should be made to block this quagmire so that we as a society can get on with the business of pursuing justice in our society.

Blind Justice

Tammany_Ring,_Nast_crop

“Who stole the people’s money?” — “‘Twas him.” (18 August 1871) Thomas Nast’s cartoons of the corruption in Tammany Hall contributed to the fall of Boss Tweed.

We are no strangers to political scandals in our country, particularly those involving the bribery of public officials. Anyone who makes decisions based upon some promise of personal gain, either privately or professionally, compromises the public trust. Our sidra reminds us that bribery is one of the most serious offenses a public official could commit, particularly those who are involved in the judicial system. Every person who comes before the court, either in a criminal or civil proceeding, is supposed to receive equal treatment by the magistrate, regardless of his/her financial or social status. The image of blind justice grows out of the insistence upon equal treatment under the law for all individuals. This notion should be applied not only to judges and public officials, but to anyone entrusted with the responsibility of an organization or community of any kind. The word is שחד- shochad – bribery. The Talmud offers an etymology of the word as a combination of two words: שהוא חד – shehu chad – that it is one. This means that if we take a bribe, we are psychologically linked with the person who gave it to us. The same way we would defend ourselves, so too would we always try to defend the person with whom we became one by taking his bribe.

Underlying this injunction grows out of the fundamental theology of our Torah: we all are created in the divine image, and thus equally entitled to fair and equal treatment; under the law, and in the organizations and communities to which we belong. The rich should not be given any opportunity to use their wealth to wield influence in the public sphere, particularly in legal proceedings.

(Deuteronomy 16.19-20)

You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.