Reflection during Shabbat Morning Services, Shabbat Shira, February 8, 2020, following the Senate acquittal of President Trump
In a moment, in the Prayer for our Country, as every morning in the most civic-minded prayer of the daily— the Amidah, we pray especially for the invigoration of two traits, justice and truth, and for the enlightenment of two groups, shofte’cha uf’kide’cha, judges and political officials.
These two traits, and these two groups, are uniquely important in Jewish law. For example, usually we observe a mitzvah when the opportunity to do so presents itself. So, according to Leviticus 19:32, we are to stand when an elderly person walks by. But we don’t get up in the morning and go outside in search of old people to honor. With respect to practicing justice, however, the Torah speaks more aggressively, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). We not only act justly when we can but we must search, like detectives, for ways to promote justice.
There are also, according to the Torah, many acts which are prohibited. We should not steal or cheat or bear grudges. But speaking falsely is the only sin which the Torah commands people to actively avoid: “Stay far away from falsehood” (Exodus 23:7).
Judges and governmental officials are commanded especially to promote justice and truth. Our legal and ethical codes realized the enormous personal and political pressures on these officials to compromise or obfuscate. But they were inspired by a verse in the first chapter of Deuteronomy (1:17). There, G‑d is giving instructions about settling in the Promised Land, and, turning to the judges, abjures, “Do not tremble before any man because the judgement is G‑d’s”.
Based on this commandment, Talmudic Rabbis and later Maimonides taught that even if a litigant threatens a judge with physical or financial harm, the judge must rule. The Rabbis recognized that this standard required great courage, but, to paraphrase Maimonides, a person who lacks courage should not become a judge.
Because of the bedrock centrality of justice, even young students were imbued with its importance. For example, a Yeshiva student who saw his teacher, even his mentor, making a mistake in judgment was to immediately point the error out to him.
And what do you do when government officials fail to render justice? The responsibility then falls even more on all citizens. In 1894, in France, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of spying for Germany and sentenced to life imprisonment. Because of anti-Semitism, even after lying and other irregularities were exposed in the first trial, Captain Dreyfus was again convicted in a second trial. Only after public pressure did the government finally relent and exonerate Dreyfus. And the case for Dreyfus was promulgated not by a judge but by a novelist, Emile Zola, who wrote, in a dramatic newspaper editorial, “I do not want my country to remain in lies and injustice. One day France will thank me for having helped to save its honor”.
In these difficult years, when truth is ignored or attacked, and lying is popularized, I try hard to follow the instruction of Maimonides. He taught that when a rod is bent abnormally to one side, one rights it by bending forcefully to the opposite side. Let us be scrupulously truthful in our own statements, intimate and public, and despite frustrations let us work politically with renewed passion. That is how, as the daily Amidah imagines, we will restore justice as of old.
Shalom Uv’racha, Peace and Blessing,