Sermon—July 18, 2015
Justice and Righteousness
Cantor Jack Chomsky
From June 30 to July 9, I was privileged to be part of the Hartman Institute Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar – Justice and Righteousness—Personal Ethics and National Aspirations – held in Jerusalem.
I had heard about the annual rabbinic study seminar at the Hartman Institute from many rabbinic and a few cantorial colleagues—always in glowing complimentary fashion. So I was pleased when the schedule for this year provided an opportunity for me to dive in.
For most of 10 days, I spent over 12 hours a day in study and fellowship with about 175 colleagues from across the U.S., plus a few from Canada, New Zealand and South America. It was a reunion of sorts for many of them – and for me, too. I reconnected with people I remember from my days in cantorial school when they were studying to be rabbis, and with prominent rabbis of the Conservative and Reform Movements. And I met and studied with people active in new corners of Orthodoxy—including the first woman to be recognized as a Rabbah in the Orthodox world.
What a treat to roll up our sleeves in chevrusa study—sometimes in pairs, sometimes in groups of 3 to 6, to encounter a stunning variety of texts meticulously prepared for us—to hear from a wide variety of scholars—movers and shakers in Israeli and American society—and to challenge ourselves with the question of how to turn learning into doing—for ourselves and for those we serve.
It will take me a long time to unpack the texts and ideas I encountered over those 10 days. This morning, I’d like to explore one corner with you—a corner that turns out to be extremely timely.
Melila Hellsner-Eshed’s presentation was entitled “Saving the World from the Flames of Justice.” Dr. Hellsner-Eshed is a professor of Jewish mysticism and Zohar at the Hebrew University, and for two decades has been a central figure in the Israeli renaissance of Jewish textual study, not just in the religious world, but also the secular.
The key question we must face is – what is the proper balance between righteousness and judgement?
Although it’s often impossible to confine one ancient Hebrew word to one modern English word definition, we can mostly be fairly safe in saying that
Tzedek can be understood as Righteousness
And Mishpat can be understood to be judgement
Tzedek uMishpat m’chon kisecha – Righteousness and judgement are the foundation of God’s throne—and therefore the foundation of the world that we want to perfect in God’s image.
What images do you associate with these words
Scales? . . A fist?. . . A blindfolded lady?
Mishpat – Judgement
A judge? A courtroom?
Sometimes these values can seem opposed.
A classic example from the Talmud:
Mishna Gittin 5:5 says. . .
Rabbi Yochanan ben Gudgodah testified. . . in the case of a beam that has been stolen and the thief went and built it into a large building or palace, its owner can only claim its value in money.
On this same issue, the Gemara tells us that Shammai ruled that the thief must demolish the whole building and restore the beam to its owner. Hillel, though, said that the owner can claim only the money value of the beam, so as not to place obstacles in the way of penitents.
Shammai – “I want my beam back. Until I get it back, there will be no justice. I don’t care what you have to knock down to do it.”
Hillel -- “If we want a world where people will come to justice, we need to have money damages. We need to have a way to move FORWARD and not just keep knocking things down.”
As Dr. Hellner-Eshed put it – the whole world that we know is based on stolen beams.
This isn’t a denunciation of the government here or in Israel—or anywhere. It’s the basic human condition. We understand that NOTHING really belongs to us. It belonged to someone else first—or didn’t. It all belongs to God.
There are two passages from the world of the Zohar that may be particularly helpful in getting us past the kind of oppositional justice that is too much a part of today’s world.
First -- Two Rungs: Mishpat and Tzedek – from Zohar Vol. III 85b (Parashat K’doshim)
Rabbi Yose said “You shall not do wrong b’mishpat – in judging.
You shall not favor the poor and you shall not defer to the rich:
B’tzedek tishpot – In righteousness you shall judge your fellow.
“Come and see: there are two rungs here: mishpat (justice) and tzedek (righteousness). What is the difference between them? Well, one is Compassion and one is Judgment, turning each other fragrantly firm. When righteousness is aroused, it renders judgment to all equally, for it contains no compassion or leniency. And when justice is aroused, it contains compassion. You might think that there is justice entirely—but Scripture comes and says b’tzedek tishpot—in righteousness shall you judge. Why? Because righteousness does not punish one and forgive the other; rather all of them equally, evenly balanced.”
If Compassion conducted the world alone, evil would go unpunished; while if strict Judgment operated alone, humanity would not survive.
So where does that leave us? This is a very complex passage, worthy of an hour of study that we’re not going to do this morning. But there was one concept that came up in this discussion that is completely innovative. Did you hear it?
What is the difference between them? The qualities of compassion and judgment – when properly balanced, turn each other FRAGRANTLY FIRM.
Seeking the FRAGRANCE of justice. If it’s on fire, it might not be the long-term solution!
The other passage from the world of Zohar is not from the Zohar itself, but another writing by its probable author Rabbi Moshe Di Leon.
This passage quite literally brings light to the subject.
In his Sha’arei Tzedek (Gates of Righteousness), he wrote, regarding Proverbs 20:27 which says “The human soul is the candle of God.”…
“The essence of faith and the root of the holy intention for a human in this world is to serve the Creator, to repair one’s soul (l’taken et nafsho), to be enlightened with the light of the living.”
Instead of tinkering with things, which is probably the way we usually think of tikun olam, he writes, “The secret of faith and the root of intention is that a person in this world be a foundation and seat upon which may rest the Throne on high. The person is the WICK, and the mitzvot and good deeds are the OIL to prepare the wick . . . so that the radiant light will shine on us so that we will be illumined before the Creator. The essence of the mitzvot and good deeds that a person does in this world is to prepare the soul and to repair great and good matters above and draw forth upon us the abundant light from above. “
What beautiful imagery! Leaning upward toward justice. Instead of beating down on someone to create justice.
I’m sure that justice is very much on your mind. You’re a Jew. We obsess about it. Thank God. What is justice in South Carolina? What is justice in who can marry whom? What is justice in dealing with Iran and nuclear weapons? I know that you’re hearing a lot of noise and some wisdom about these things.
Let’s try to lean upward, too—and to be sensitive to the FRAGRANCE of justice.
We Jews have sought to make a more just world—from the time of the Torah, to the times of the Rabbis of the Talmud, through 2000 years of exile from our promised land, and in most of the “justice” revolutions of the modern world.
In our own lifetime, we know well the words “If I had hammer. . . If I had a bell. . . If I had a song to sing.” Too often today, people try to hammer each OTHER with that hammer of justice.
Dr. Hellner-Eshed really raises a crucial point with the title of her presentation. . . Saving the World from the Flames of Justice. We are in danger of burning things down with the heat we use to pursue justice.
Or as put magnificently by 20th century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
Hamakom Bo Anu Tzodkim—The Place Where We Are Right
From the place where we are right (shebo anu tzodkim)
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves (sfakot v’-ahavot)
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
This tells us that we must seek to create the fragrance of justice in places where everything has been swept away – and where nothing is YET growing.
This is the story of our people—whether in the aftermath of the Holocaust—whether in the aftermath of the destruction that we are preparing to remember as Tisha B’Av comes next weekend—or in the swept away places in our own lives.
May we find the strength, the patience, and the wisdom, to lean upward and help to create the fragrance of that kind of balanced justice in our lives, in our community, in our world, in our time.